WHEN MOST PEOPLE THINK of a university, they think of ivy-covered buildings, a quadrangle, a student union. None of those things is part of the Minerva Schools. Instead, Minerva houses students in residential halls in six cities worldwide; students spend a semester at each location, while completing online courses with peers at all locations and immersing themselves in each city. (See “The Minerva Model” at the end of this article.)
The idea for Minerva originated in Nelson’s own undergraduate experience at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. There, he was disheartened by the large anonymous lecture classes required for his degree. For that reason, he sought out a wide range of electives taught in small-class formats.
After graduating from Wharton in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, Nelson would go on to work for ten years at Snapfish, HP’s online photo print service—the last five years as its CEO. His experience at Snapfish opened his eyes to what technology made possible for higher education. “Before that, I couldn’t have conceived that I could start a university,” says Nelson. “After I was steeped in the world of the Internet, I understood that rather than spending so much time and energy on something that didn’t have dramatic impact on the world, I could start a new institution that could improve the world.”
Here, Nelson explains why he believes Minerva’s model is better than traditional universities at preparing students for 21st-century business challenges—and why it could represent the future of higher education.
How did your experience as an undergraduate at the Wharton School Inspire you to create a different model for higher education?
To earn my business degree, I had to take 19 courses at Wharton, but I could take the rest from other departments as electives. In one elective on the history of universities, I learned about the foundation of higher education. When we think of art, we think of music and literature, but when the Romans thought of art, they also thought of mathematics, science, engineering, and the practical arts. I learned that universities were founded on the principles of combining the practical and the ornamental arts, but we don’t practice that approach in the U.S. That ideal for education was a revelation—I realized what universities should be teaching.
Fully active learning means that 100% of students must be engaged at least 75% of the time."
— BEN NELSON
For example, most of the courses I needed for my business degree were at the 101 or 102 level—two semesters of calculus, two semesters of economics, two semesters of accounting, and so on. Only one of those courses wasn’t a standard lecture class. It was a modeling class where I learned to use Excel, and I found that class extremely useful. But I could have learned the material in the rest of my business courses from reading the books. That means that some students are spending US$100,000 on tuition for information that is effectively available for free. There is something really wrong with that. That realization was my impetus for believing that universities needed to change.
The Minerva model emphasizes “active learning” in its online courses. How do you define active learning?
As we define it, fully active learning means that 100 percent of students must be engaged at least 75 percent of the time in every class. If a professor asks a Socratic question of one student, the others know that halfway through the answer, the professor will ask another student the same question. If they aren’t engaged, they’ll be in trouble. If two students begin debating, the professor won’t interrupt, but instead ask the other students to rate who’s winning.
We also have ways for professors to conduct breakout sessions and ask students to give feedback at the end of each class. Professors can pass digital “notes” to students during class to let them know if they are going off track while they’re speaking without interrupting or embarrassing them and allow students to correct themselves. Some of these techniques would be difficult or impossible to do without technology.
Minerva accepted 150 students to its incoming class this fall. Can Minerva’s model be scaled to larger numbers?
It’s far more scalable than the current higher education model. We have found the ideal class size is 15 to 19 students, but universities offer massive lecture courses that often don’t teach anything, as well as courses with only a few students that aren’t large enough to offer diverse opinions or opportunities for debate. Both are ineffective and not scalable.
We have no lectures, and all students receive very personalized attention. We deliver courses via live online video, which we find more effective than classroom instruction. Students have their own laptops, and some take courses from the comfort of their rooms. But it’s just as common for students to gather in a common space to take classes together. Minerva provides students with a list of concepts they need to be familiar with before they start classes, as well as a curated list of materials they can use to learn these concepts. These include resources such as books, articles, and free MOOCs produced by others. We ask students to complete introductory MOOCs on topics such as calculus, economics, and statistics on their own time, and students complete assessments, graded by Minerva’s faculty, before each semester to show they’ve mastered the prerequisite material.
So, think of those introductory courses I took at Wharton. Before students start their business majors at Minerva, they’ve already gone through ten of those on their own, instead of paying $60,000 to take them during their freshman year.
If information is fully available online, we’re not going to charge students for that knowledge. Those courses are not considered part of our curriculum. They are prerequisites to come to Minerva.
Why not have a physical campus?
The way universities have designed the residential experience is also non-scalable. A few years ago, Yale wanted to increase the size of its incoming class by 800 students. The cost to do that was $600 million—all that money to offer a campus experience that removes students from the real world. It’s not as if college cafeterias offer the most delicious food, university museums have the greatest art, or university sports facilities have the greatest gyms. Universities are charging students for access to services that already exist in the real world but do a worse job at providing them.
Because we don’t have physical classrooms, we don’t have to build any of the amenities associated with campus environments—we only have to provide residence halls. We own two residence halls in San Francisco. Last year students occupied only the smaller of the two; this year, because we have more students, we’ll use the larger of the two. We own our buildings in San Francisco because we never know how many students we’re going to have in each class. But as students travel to other cities, we know that we need, say, 120 beds in Buenos Aires. We lease buildings in every other market because it’s easier and more flexible. Under our model, students live together and still experience a sense of community, but at a fraction of the cost of a campus experience. They are also immersed in the real world.
What technological platform do you use to deliver your courses?
We actually built the platform ourselves to fulfill Minerva’s particular curricular and pedagogical goals. But what’s important to understand is that I came up with the idea of Minerva in 1993, when today’s technology and the groundswell to reform education did not exist. At that time, Minerva couldn’t have been implemented. Minerva was never conceived as a technologically mediated idea. It was conceived as the perfect curriculum.
I think that the biggest mistake higher education institutions make is to ask how they can use technology in the curriculum, instead of first asking what they should be doing pedagogically for their students. What do they want students to know? If you want to start thinking about reforming education, you can’t start from the point of constraint. You have to start thinking about the ideal, and then you figure out what must be true for that idea to be fulfilled.
In what ways have you updated your platform since 2012?
In the first few months of teaching, we had almost no data on how our students were performing, but we soon realized that some students were speaking more than others. So we built a meter that automatically counted the number of seconds each student spoke during the live video classes. Now, as the professor interacts with students on individual screens, each student’s screen is tinted green, yellow, or red, to help the professor keep track of how often students speak; the teacher can then make adjustments. That makes teaching easier.
Minerva Schools came about through a partnership with Keck Graduate Institute. Why partner with KGI?
The first reason was that we wanted to make sure Minerva issued an accredited degree. We couldn’t do that unless we partnered with an accredited institution. The second was that, because Minerva came out of nowhere, we wanted people to understand that we were in the correct company. As a member of the Claremont Colleges, KGI has been a leader in applied education; it just launched a new program in bioscience management. Our relationship with KGI lent us the initial credibility for what we were trying to do.
Do Minerva faculty receive tenure?
No. Without question, tenure is a cancer in higher education. It’s a real problem that people conflate tenure with academic freedom, when one has nothing to do with the other. I understand that universities offer tenure so their professors can pursue research that might not pay off for 20 years, but the cancerous part is that tenure does not correlate with education. A professor can be a great researcher and a terrible educator and still get tenure.
I have long argued that professors should draw two different salaries—one for research and one for education. Universities can set whatever policy for tenure that they want on the research side, but that policy shouldn’t burden the education side. Educators should be trained and evaluated, and if their students aren’t learning, they should be fired.
I also believe that all undergraduates should see how much of their professors’ time is diverted to research—and they need to realize that they’re paying for that. Universities cannot both say that education matters and pretend that education does not matter by using undergraduate tuition to subsidize research. It’s totally nuts.
What is your policy for faculty?
At Minerva, we keep research and teaching separate, because our undergraduate tuition dollars are meant to support the time our professors spend teaching students, not conducting research. We expect our professors to have active research and consulting lives, but they get to keep the grant money and salary they earn for that.
Minerva charges $12,500 for annual tuition and $16,950 for housing, food, and services. Do you offer scholarships?
We charge $20,000 less in tuition than many traditional universities, but still 81 percent of our students receive financial aid. All of our students work. We ensure that none of our students graduate with more than $20,000 in student debt. I don’t abide by the concept that a student loan is a bad thing, as long as the loan is for a small amount.
Because we have students from all over the world, and their travel costs are unpredictable, the expense of travel is the student’s responsibility.
How will you measure the success of Minerva’s educational model?
We’ll measure it by our retention rates. So far, we’ve kept 90 percent of our students. And rather than judging our success by our students’ salaries after graduation, we’ll look at the quality of their opportunities. We want to know, are our students getting not just the same opportunities as students at the best higher education institutions in the world, but better ones?
What do you think business schools could most learn from the Minerva Schools?
That curriculum matters. That if you are doing what you’re doing because everybody else is doing it that way, you haven’t learned the basic lesson of business. In business, followers don’t dominate their fields—innovators do. And in higher education, innovation isn’t about delivery systems or bells and whistles. It’s about rethinking what you teach.