The Minerva Project is attempting to create an elite online university, a move that if successful could accelerate the higher education reform being driven by escalating costs and improving technology.
Traditionally, for-profit colleges have operated on the lowest rungs of America’s educational ladder, catering to poor and lower-middle-class students looking for a basic, convenient degree or technical training. Aspiring Ivy Leaguers have remained far out of the industry’s sites.
That is, until now.
This week, the Minerva Project, a startup online university, announced that it had received $25 million in seed financing from Benchmark Capital, a major Silicon Valley venture capital firm known for its early investments in eBay, among other successful web companies. Minerva bills itself as “the first elite American university to be launched in a century,” and promises to re-envision higher education for the information age. The chairman of its advisory board: Larry Summers, the former treasury secretary and Harvard president. Among others, he’s joined on the board by Bob Kerry, the former United States senator and president of The New School.
A shortage of elite schools
… The demand for elite, American-style education far outstrips the current supply, he explained, not just stateside, but worldwide…. applications from qualified students are skyrocketing, while admissions rates are falling.
The Minerva business model
… The idea is to scoop up those students who are being shut out, whether it’s a smart American kid who has to opt for a solid state school when they had their heart set on Brown, or the child of a well-to-do family in Beijing, by offering them a great education and a worldwide network of contacts. Minerva will admit applicants based on their academic chops alone — jocks need not apply — and students would live in urban dorms scattered across the globe’s great cities. They’ll take online courses designed by highly esteemed professors from other established institutions. Meanwhile, tuition would cost “less than half” the price of the standard Ivy league sticker price (so somewhere around $20,000 or below). That, anyway, is the plan.
There are opposing opinions on whether something like this can work, and I can only go on my feeling that some big change is around the corner. Exactly how it will shake out is probably anyone’s guess, but imposing stringent admission standards would be critical in raising the prestige of any online institution.
The value of peer interaction on a physical campus is cited as one reason online college will always be considered second best. On the other hand, the argument is made that young people are finding online interaction to be just as important as face-to-face meetings. Perhaps related, it has recently been reported that a smaller percentage of teens are bothering to get their driver’s license these days.
A physical campus helps create a community of scholars who engage in various social, artistic, political, and humanitarian pursuits that are integral to the experience sought by elite students. But if an individual has the smarts and the initiative, an online community could also offer support for getting this type of experience, just without the need to go into debt for next 20 years.
Will the Minerva Project be the the first elite online university? If so, we may have to make room for an online Ivy League.