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Hacking higher ed: Will Minerva upend the college model?

A startup college aims to offer a top-notch education for half the price of elite universities

SAN FRANCISCO — Imagine a college without classrooms, classes without lectures and dormitories moved to a different city in a different country every semester.

For a select group of students, this is a typical day at a college that’s also devoid of libraries and tenured professors. But the founders of the Minerva Project say students may be getting a better education without them.

Minerva, still in its first year of operation, is a mostly virtual university that aims to compete with the nation’s most elite schools.

Founding Dean Stephen Kosslyn joined the startup after a career working in Ivy League institutions. He says students in traditional college settings aren’t being effectively educated.

“I don’t think they’re being given tools for life,” he told America Tonight. “I don’t think they are acquiring what we think of here as the great cognitive tools that allow them to succeed.”

He may have a point. A 2011 study included in the book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” found that 45 percent of undergraduates in a sample group of 2,300 students demonstrated no significant improvement in critical thinking and complex reasoning after their first two years of college.

At traditional universities where large lecture courses are the norm and few professors ever receive formal training in how to teach, Kosslyn says there is little appetite for reform.

“You don’t have the luxury at an existing institution of pushing the reset button,” he said. “You know, it’s like a giant ocean liner moving ahead at sea. It’s very hard to change the direction of this thing. It’s much easier to build a new boat and launch it.”

The Minerva model

Stephen Kosslyn, right, shows Adam May what he sees during a typical Minerva class.
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A world-class neuroscientist and former dean of social sciences at Harvard, Kosslyn says Minerva doesn’t teach traditional subjects like math or biology. Instead, students spend their first year taking small seminar courses, with titles like Formal Analyses and Complex Systems, designed to teach critical thinking skills rather than content.

All classes are taught in real time, through a proprietary online classroom. The method is based on research into how people learn. 

“Lecturing is a great way to teach because you can teach 1,000 people as effectively as 10 people, but it’s a terrible way to learn,” he said.

Jonathan Katzman, the school’s chief product officer, says the school’s technology is designed to compel students to participate, which research has shown is a more effective way for students to learn. During class, professors can see a chart of each student’s face, color-coded to show his or her level of participation. Tools like pop quizzes and breakout sessions help teachers avoid lecturing.

“You see all the times that anyone spoke, all the times anyone typed anything,” he said. “You can actually filter down — ‘I only want to see when anyone spoke over 10 seconds,’ ‘I want to see all the time when people raised their hands.’”

While the technology and method are intriguing, the results still are unproven.

“We have data showing that the principles underlying this method of teaching [are] working very well and that some of the specific practices that we use work extremely well,” he said. “But other ones, we don’t know yet.”

Kosslyn says Minerva will measure student progress through a new standardized test called the CLA+. The test is gaining popularity among some colleges and employers as a means of assessing graduating students’ reasoning and communication skills as grade inflation makes GPAs a less reliable gauge. Minerva students will take the test before starting college and every year until graduation.  

Half-price degree

Yoel Ferdman turned down the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA to join Minerva’s founding class. He says he enjoys having the freedom to take classes from anywhere, allowing him to visit friends at other schools. He has noticed that students at other universities party a lot more, saying that he imagines those schools offer “a much more comfortable environment.”

Hoping to be challenged academically, Yoel Ferdman chose Minerva over UCLA and Berkeley.
America Tonight

“But I’m not really here to be put in my comfort zone,” he said. “I want to be challenged in college. I want to grow, and I want to learn.”

The university isn’t completely online. Ferdman and his 27 freshman classmates live together in an apartment building, Minerva’s version of a dorm. It’s the only campuslike building the school has.

After their freshman year in San Francisco, the students will spend each semester in a different city around the globe. While continuing to take classes online, students will eventually live in six cities: Berlin, Buenos Aires, Bangalore, Seoul, London and Istanbul.

With $95 million in venture capital, much of it from Chinese investors, Minerva says it has pared down the college experience to the bare essentials, making it affordable to a growing number of students from outside the U.S.

When Roujia Wen was applying to Minerva, she had already been accepted to Georgetown. Wen, who hails from China, almost committed to Georgetown but balked at the price. With tuition, room and board, Minerva is about $28,000 a year, half the price of the average private university. Members of the founding class, like Wen, are attending for free.

“I thought it was ridiculous how much money I have to pay to live in D.C. and study there,” Wen said. “Minerva was also much cheaper.”

Pressuring other colleges

The project is the brainchild of Ben Nelson, a former CEO of Snapfish, a photo-sharing website. He cited several factors for rising costs in higher education, including the tenure system, expensive athletics programs and growing administrative expenses. 

Minerva CEO Ben Nelson.
America Tonight

“We don’t like to say that we’re the solution, and we don’t make that claim. But we do claim that we’re a solution,” said Nelson. “The best thing is that if Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Stanford and every other elite university and every university in the country would look at what we’re doing and say, ‘You know what? We can do better.’”

He says traditional colleges have sought to distinguish themselves among potential students by offering amenities that have nothing to do with education, instead marketing enhancements to student lifestyle. “Right now, the battle of ideas is not about the substance of education. It’s not about the substance of the student experience. And when universities engage in that battle again, then that is what’s going to not just save but elevate American higher education and higher education all around the world.”

Minerva has a few bugs to work out. The founding class is required to take the next year off, as the school works to hire enough faculty to offer academic majors and to prepare its foreign facilities. 

But interest in the school is high: Minerva accepted 200 new students for next year from almost 11,000 applications. (It also has received about 1,000 applications from prospective faculty members.) In a few years, it wants to increase its student population to 7,000 to be financially sustainable.

While it’s still experimental, if Minerva gets the results it expects, the university without walls may very well upend American higher education.

Whatever happens with Minerva, Kosslyn knows he made the right choice.

“This is the last phase of my career,” he said. “I really wanted to have an impact. I wanted all this stuff that I’ve been studying for decades to be used in some way that’s useful.”

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