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Minerva CEO Ben Nelson on a Radical Rethinking of Higher Ed.

By Rick Hess — September 17, 2020 14 min read
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Ben Nelson is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Minerva, a San Francisco-based university and ed-tech startup. Prior to founding Minerva, Ben spent more than 10 years at Snapfish, serving as CEO for five of those, where he helped build the company from startup to the world’s largest personal publishing service. Before Snapfish, Ben was president and CEO of Community Ventures. I recently sat down with Ben to discuss the Minerva model and the implications for higher education more broadly.


Rick: What is Minerva?

Ben: Minerva is two organizations that are unified with one mission: to nurture critical wisdom for the sake of the world. We believe that there are no more important institutions to society than universities, as they have such a strong influence on picking those individuals who will eventually make decisions of consequence—decisions that will impact the lives of others more so than their own. And, because of that, we think that wisdom is the most important thing that universities can teach, but we also realize that universities don’t do that. With that in mind, we decided to build a nonprofit, idealized university that could serve as a beacon on a hill—as a template that other universities could look up to, be inspired by, and follow—and we created a corporation that collaborates with other institutions to follow in Minerva’s footsteps thereby enabling that reform.

Rick: What makes Minerva different from other universities?

Ben: Compared with the traditional university, Minerva has a very different approach to admissions, student experience, the relationship to the real world, and much else. But the key things that differentiate Minerva, and the way in which we seek to lead the way for other institutions, is what we teach and how we teach it. What we teach is centered around this idea of transferable practical knowledge, knowledge that can be transferred to any field, context, or culture. We constructed a curriculum that puts meta-cognitive skills at its center and subordinates subject matter to reinforce students’ learning and practice.

Rick: Why do you think something like Minerva is needed?

Ben: We know that traditional higher education does not provide society the kinds of graduates that it needs, whether it’s in the workforce or just as citizens. An education that is grounded in one or more unconnected subject matters is not an education that fundamentally works in the real world. And yet, diversity in higher education is broadly an illusion. The way that Harvard teaches physics is practically the same as Stanford, which is practically the same as Foothill Community College. There is no general education to speak of except for the few courses students select at random from a huge menu of intro courses to various disciplines. The few remaining core curricula, like those at St John’s or Columbia, are based on 19th-century approaches. Minerva is needed because the sector must see that you can operate an institution with the same constraints (accredited, four years, 120 credit hours time-based, all professors have Ph.D.s, etc.) and actually produce a profoundly better education that equips students for the real world.

Rick: Where did the idea come from?

Ben: The idea initially came from a course I took as a freshman in college, and it wasn’t an idea of how to start a new university—it was how to reform the curriculum of my own university. The course dealt with the history of the American university, and what I learned was that the American university was set up as a reaction against the European model. At a European university, you would study how to build a bridge because the king needed bridge builders, or you would learn to be a priest because the church needed priests. Universities were an instrument to keep citizens of a country subjugated. The revolutionary ideas in America necessitated a different kind of approach, one where residents weren’t subjects but free citizens who needed to be trained in the various disciplines, or arts, that gave them freedom, or liberty, hence the liberal arts. So universities were created here to nurture free citizens who could determine their future, self-govern, and lead communities, and core to that was the study of practical or useful knowledge that they could apply to any aspect of life.

Rick: OK, so how exactly does this work in practice? If I show up as a freshman at Minerva in the fall, what would my next four years look like?

Ben: Well, in a typical year, the first year as a student, you would spend eight months learning four systems of thinking: the formal, empirical, complex, and rhetorical. More importantly, you would learn the 80 component parts of those four systems, which underpin a Minerva education. Students live together in a residence hall in downtown San Francisco and take advantage of the city as their campus. They have their formal classes on our proprietary, live-video learning environment called Forum, but they are really only in class three hours a day, four days a week. That’s it. The rest of the time, they are studying for a class, doing their work, engaging with civic partners that help them use their knowledge to solve real-world problems, or socializing with their fellow students and the Minerva network.

As the students advance in their studies in subsequent years, their choice in picking their major, concentration, and electives widens. In addition, they start getting an immersive, global experience in various cities around the world. And so students as a group go from San Francisco and spend their second year split between Seoul, South Korea, and Hyderabad, India. The third year between Berlin, Germany, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, and their fourth year between London, England, and Taipei, in Taiwan. And then they come back to San Francisco for a month for graduation.

Rick: Talk a bit about the instructional model. What kinds of classes do students take, and who teaches those classes? How is instruction different from other colleges and universities?

Ben: The classes are all done via live videos with seminars that are less than 20 students per class, where the professor is deeply engaged with the students and everybody’s face is on camera. The professor isn’t lecturing but actually involving students and applying what they have learned through debate, polls, breakout discussions, and other modalities built into Forum.

After the first year at Minerva, students actually get two sets of grades. They get grades on learning objectives for subject matter in their particular classes, but they also get graded on how their practice of habits and grasp of concepts are impacting their applications of those classes. Their first-year grades are living grades—they don’t get finalized until the end of their four years, which means that about half of their grade point average is based around how they think, as opposed to what they know.

Rick: What’s the advantage of doing all of your instruction via livestream rather than in person?

Ben: Imagine that a university president was to gather their faculty senate and say, “Our world is in crisis, we are at a point where our graduates don’t understand the difference between a fact and a claim.” The president says that it is imperative as the faculty of the university that we make sure that all of our students understand evidentiary bases. Well, half the faculty will ignore whatever the president says, a quarter will think it’s a good idea and try but do a terrible job, and perhaps a quarter will do it well. In that case, even a random walk through the curriculum will give students enough exposure to different evidentiary bases in different subject matters that they will probably graduate knowing how to distinguish between a fact and a claim. Now imagine that the president instead instructs the faculty to provide students with facility and mastery across 80 different learning objectives that they need to be able to transfer to any field that they encounter. That is impossible. It is not a task any professor would be able to take up, or, even if they took it up, could report on or provide any type of feedback.

Without the ability to collect data that traverses one course to another, this kind of education is impossible. You cannot collect this data, nor link different courses to each other, in a traditional, brick-and-mortar university. At best, you can rely on faulty memories, and the goodwill of some professors to collaborate, but you will not get any consistent results. Our livestream format allows us to record and collect data on every student’s performance in class. We can then allow the professor to analyze it and trace those same metrics from one course to another. The reason we conduct our classes on a custom-built learning environment is not because it is almost as good or even as good as a traditional offline class, it is because the kind of education that students receive at Minerva cannot be delivered without it.

Rick: How many students does Minerva enroll, and how big is the faculty?

Ben: Right now, Minerva has about 600 undergraduates. We have a very small master’s program, a master’s in decision analysis, which is done part time and remotely. We also have about 70 faculty members, the vast majority of whom are full time.

Rick: Can you say a bit about the profile of the student body? And just how selective is Minerva?

Ben: We have about a 1 percent acceptance rate, which makes us the most selective university in the country, if not the world. The students come from the top of their class, they are very bright, they have many talents and passions outside of the classroom settings, and those seem like a typical profile of an Ivy League school. The difference is that we don’t select students in the same way that a typical university selects students. We don’t look at SAT or ACT scores; we have our own set of assessments. We don’t use prewritten essays that can be written by college counselors; we actually do live interviews, both oral and written, and ask the students questions, the answers to which cannot be gamed. Lastly, there are no “spots”’ at Minerva—we do not curate the class. Even though we have a 1 percent acceptance rate, we have a 100 percednt acceptance rate for qualified students. If you qualify for Minerva, you are in. The dean of admissions at Harvard has admitted that half of the students that apply to Harvard are fully qualified. So the acceptance rate is artificial. It is not that the 96 percent that don’t get into Harvard shouldn’t be there. What highly selective universities do is try to manufacture a balanced class—except for the rich who are massively over-represented—based on superficial factors, and the reality is that when you look at the ethnic, geographic, socioeconomic distribution at Minerva, we are by far the most diverse student body of any highly selective university, but we do absolutely nothing to engineer that.

Rick: How much does all this cost? And how do you handle issues like work-study and financial aid?

Ben: Minerva costs a little over $30,000 a year with tuition, fees, room, and board, and this is despite the fact that 100 percent of our classes have 20 or fewer students. It also includes room, board, and all the global-immersion activities in each country. Basically, everything except for flights. We are the only university in the country that can offer that. Half of that $30,000 is the cost of being alive—it is room and board, a cost that we cannot control, and $5,000 of that we don’t even charge, it is just a budget for students to eat since we have no meal plans. The $16,000 or so of tuition and fees are the things that actually go toward their education and their experience. The majority of students in highly selective universities, including many of the ones that claim to be need-blind, can afford to pay $70,000 a year. At Minerva, about 80 percent of our students cannot afford $30,000, and more than 70 percent of our students cannot afford $20,000. So, the need for scholarship funding is substantial, and we are always looking for individuals to join our small and highly impactful group of donors. Before students get scholarships, 100 percent are offered a $5,000 loan every year, and they can work, earning up to $5,000 a year. We think our philosophy of personal responsibility before getting provided scholarships is extremely important.

Rick: You come to this from a corporate background. How do you think that has shaped your thinking, and how did you make the jump over to higher education?

Ben: Being in the corporate world teaches you two basic things: how to identify gaps not currently addressed by incumbent competitors and how to deliver a product or service that fills that gap. I used to run a business that operated in more than 20 countries, delivered a better customer experience at a significantly lower price to our end customer, and provided the infrastructure to apparent competitors to do the same for their customers. Our approach to higher education is effectively the same but on a far more consequential field.

Rick: How do you measure your outcomes, and what kind of results have you seen so far? Put another way, how do you convince prospective students and interested observers that this approach can work?

Ben: Though we have internal and external measurements of learning progress, we know the ultimate test is the success of our students. On that end, we are pleased that our outcomes are by and large better than other highly selective universities. Not only do our students get graduate school placements that would be the envy of any other elite undergraduate program, the types of jobs our students are offered are many times unavailable to recent college graduates.

Rick: Can the Minerva model really be implemented at traditional brick and mortar institutions?

Ben: Yes. In fact, we have now operated Minerva programs in universities in Hong Kong, India, and in the United States. We also have a number of other relationships with other universities that we have not yet announced. We have actually recorded even larger learning gains in some partner institutions than we have seen with our own students.

Rick: What are some of the challenges of rolling out this platform at larger, traditional universities?

Ben: The biggest challenge is getting faculty to accept a new role where they’re asked to do something different from what they are used to. The Minerva approach is based on scientific research, but the current educational model is not. It’s like showing up with antibiotics to a hospital that still uses leeches to drain bad humors. It takes a lot of education to get people to accept that there are better ways even when the evidence is incontrovertible.

Rick: Many are wondering how the pandemic will affect enrollment in traditional universities, with more students opting to delay, or not attend, because of the uncertainty around the coming school year. Do you think this will lead more students to seek alternative programs like Minerva?

Ben: We hope not. Your education is one of the most important choices you make in your life. Students should choose Minerva because it is the best possible program for them. What the pandemic has shown is that universities know very little about education. The remote part is not the challenge, it’s the education itself.

Rick: Do you think Minerva can play a helpful role for districts going remote and parents and families that are considering alternatives to traditional public schools for the coming year?

Ben: We have just announced the Minerva Baccalaureate, which is the first systematic curricular alternative to Advanced Placement, A Levels, and the IB in more than 50 years. It brings the Minerva educational philosophy to 9-12th graders. We are launching it with Laurel Springs, which is available online and accredited in all 50 states. In coming years, I hope you will see the Minerva Baccalaureate offered across all school types throughout the country. We aren’t able to launch another cohort for this academic year, but we expect the Minerva Baccalaureate to be available much more broadly in the coming years.

Rick: A decade out, if this all proceeds as you hope, what does it look like?

Ben: A decade from now, I would hope that students, donors, and regulators will change their view of how to evaluate education. If a university or high school makes a claim (e.g., “we teach our students how to think critically”), then that same institution will have to demonstrate how they do that with unassailable evidence. If they cannot, then students will go elsewhere, donors will cut off funding, and regulators should remove their ability to call themselves an educational institution. Rather than telling institutions what to teach, give them the freedom to decide but the responsibility to actually deliver on it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.