Minerva comes of age, hoping it’s not too late

New university finds early success with online teaching in local environments worldwide, but fears higher education may already have lost the public

June 2, 2022
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Set apart HE systems won’t tackle social stratification ‘because their business model depends on it’, says Minerva founder

After just four graduating classes, the online trailblazer Minerva University feels it has a model that could finally transform higher education – if the sector’s overall failures have not already left it reputationally ruined.

Minerva is a venture based on scientific understandings of human learning processes that are well known among pedagogical experts but too often ignored across the rest of academia. Its small cohorts of students travel the world applying project-based teachings to local challenges, generating off-the-charts rates of admissions selectivity, social diversity and professional outcomes.

Sustaining and expanding such paradigm-changing operations for a predominantly low-income student body will be a major challenge well into the future, said Minerva’s founder and chancellor, Ben Nelson, an Ivy League-trained entrepreneur.

But a far bigger challenge, Mr Nelson said in an interview, was expanding the awareness and acceptance of Minerva and its worldview just as higher education overall has been collapsing in public respect because of ever-escalating costs and the widening recognition of its low net value affirmed by families getting an at-home look behind the curtain during Covid.

Higher education’s reputational collapse was a problem “that we’ve been fighting mightily for 10 years, and have been making ever so minuscule progress in – which is that universities are doing whatever they can to delegitimise themselves”, he said. “This is a sector that is producing an output that no one is satisfied with.”

Minerva, on the other hand, appears to have some true believers. They include Bridget Burns, the chief executive officer of the University Innovation Alliance, a coalition of public US research universities working to improve success and diversity in higher education.

Dr Burns, a former senior policy adviser in the Oregon University System, is deeply critical of much of what she sees in higher education. That is not the case with the decade-old Minerva. “What they’re doing, what they have done, in terms of the undergraduate experience, of making it the Socratic method, really immersive, digital – it’s so incredible,” she said. “To me, it’s the gold standard for online course delivery.”

Minerva uses teaching insights advocated by reformers such as Eric Mazur, the Harvard University physics professor widely known for developing interactive teaching methods. It employs a compendium of approaches that have extensive research backing yet struggle to gain adoption in traditional universities because of factors that include entrenched attitudes and preferences.

For their four years at Minerva, students spend semesters in locations around the world. Their current list consists of Berlin, London, Seoul, Taipei, Hyderabad, Buenos Aires and San Francisco. At each location, they live in rented housing, take classes in small groups through simultaneous online connections, and work on projects in the local community. Their travelling cohorts are kept at the “Dunbar’s number” of 150.

Minerva uses a flipped model of reading and viewing instructor presentations in advance, then using class time to discuss and debate and collaborate. It aims at prioritising an attitude of questioning, challenging and problem-solving. It has an acceptance rate of a few percentage points, yet most of its students have family incomes below $50,000 (£40,000) a year. Only about 15 per cent of them come from the US.

It claims a graduation rate near 85 per cent, with chief career outcomes that include problem-centred entrepreneurship and education reform. The three companies launched by its graduates have a 100 per cent record at the renowned start-up accelerator Y Combinator. Minerva charges about $35,000 a year for tuition, room and board, with aid for those who need it.

Yet it is still battling for attention. “If we went to 100 high school graduating seniors, 90 wouldn’t have heard of us,” Mr Nelson told Times Higher Education.

He nevertheless believes that the idea of Minerva is scalable, both within its own structure and as a proof of concept for changes across traditional higher education – which to his mind has yet to accept how truly endangered it is, even as enrolments drop amid a plethora of lower-cost online alternatives.

“Nobody in these quote-unquote non-profit institutions has an incentive to actually be focused on social mobility,” he said. “They have an enormous incentive to basically create a social stratification, or perpetuate a social stratification, because their business model is dependent on it.”

An example that appears to especially gall him, from his base in San Francisco, is Stanford University’s recent announcement of a $1.1 billion donation to create a new school dedicated to climate change and sustainability studies. Most of that money will be sunk into another physical building, and the rest will be used to poach faculty from other top universities, Mr Nelson predicted.

“What is the social value of that?” he asked. “That $1.1 billion could have endowed – I’m not kidding – 10 Minervas in perpetuity.”


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