Can This ‘Online Ivy’ University Change the Face of Higher Education?

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 for-profit school trying to elbow its way into the top tier of American universities could certainly do worse for a pedigree.* But what makes Minerva interesting isn't the possibility that one day it might displace Harvard, Yale, or even Cornell in the hearts of American undergraduates. It probably won't. Rather, it's what the school might show us about the state of the global education market, and how the United States might be able to turn its reputation for pedagogical excellence into a high-tech export industry.

The brain behind Minerva is Ben Nelson, the former CEO of online photo finishing company Snapfish. Nelson describes himself as a "student of the history of higher education," and says that the idea of dragging college into the modern age has been a personal passion since his undergraduate days at the University of Pennsylvania. He also has something of a Trump-like weakness for superlatives.

"We are educating the world's smartest, hardest working students," he told me at one point, lapsing into present tense (he anticipates Minerva's first class will matriculate in 2014). "I want to be very clear about that. We are creating a civilian West Point. The people who will get into and graduate from Minerva will be, bar none, the best students on the planet."

"There will not be a single Minerva class that will not change your life perception," he added later. "That is the guarantee."

Occasional bombast aside, Nelson makes a simple and compelling business pitch. The demand for elite, American-style education far outstrips the current supply, he explained, not just stateside, but worldwide. The number of young Americans has swelled over the past thirty years, while in emerging economies like China and Brazil, parents of the growing upper and upper-middle classes still aspire to send their children here for school. Meanwhile, the top U.S. universities, which he defines roughly as the country's thirty most selective institutions, have maxed out their class sizes. It's no longer economical for most to increase their number of undergraduates. And so applications from qualified students are skyrocketing, while admissions rates are falling.

The system, he said, is suffering from "lockjaw."

Nelson thinks he can unlock it. 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.

Ultimately, Nelson guesses that between 5 and 10 percent of the school's future student body would be from the United States. The rest would come from abroad. Worldwide, he believes there are anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 students who fit his target demographic.

The only sure thing are the questions. Chief among them: Can Minerva really whip prestige out of thin air? America's colleges, after all, rely on cache they've developed over decades, if not centuries. Creating that credibility overnight might be just as hard abroad as at home. After all, as the joke goes, the only word for college in Chinese is "Harvard."

During our interview, Nelson responded to those concerns by pointing to examples like Grinnell, a small, liberal arts college in the middle of Iowa, which he says was able to attract sizable population of foreign students simply by visiting and talking with them.

He also noted the bold faced names on his advisory board. "It doesn't hurt," he said.

Does the world really want an online Ivy? Whether or not Minerva succeeds may just tell us. And even if Nelson's plan doesn't work out, it could provide a rough outline for how today's elite schools could try and project their brands abroad. Schools like Northwestern University and Carnegie Mellon have already built campuses abroad catering almost entirely to international students. And MIT is already experimenting with online credentialing. Its not beyond the realm of imagination that these schools might one day make a Minerva-like jump, if the economics were right.

Perhaps, one day, we could see a whole online Ivy League.


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