The Atlantic Examines the Future of College, Sans Ivy-Covered Walls

By Mark Walsh — August 15, 2014 2 min read
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The Atlantic has a package of education stories in its September issue, including the cover story that asks “Is College Doomed?

The story by Graeme Wood is about the Minerva Project, an innovative bricks-and-mortar university with offices and a dorm in San Francisco, where its first class of 33 students resides and engages in education online.

Minerva does not offer MOOCs—massive open online courses—to anyone on the Web. Its students apply and pay tuition—currently about $28,000 per year—but aren’t buying ivy-covered buildings, libraries, football teams and stadiums, and so forth.

Founded by Ben Nelson, Minerva aims to offer an elite college experience that competes with the Ivy League schools, Stanford, and other top-tier institutions. It hopes to grow each year and expand to other cities around the world.

“The paradox of undergraduate education in the United States is that it is the envy of the world, but also tremendously beleaguered,” Wood writes, especially by “financial dysfunction.”

“In the past half millennium, the technology of learning has hardly budged,” he writes. “The easiest way to picture what a university looked like 500 years ago is to go to any large university today, walk into a lecture hall, and imagine the professor speaking Latin and wearing a monk’s cowl.”

“The most common class format is still a professor standing in front of a group of students and talking,” he adds. “And even though we’ve subjected students to lectures for hundreds of years, we have no evidence that they are a good way to teach.”

Wood deftly explores for-profit Minerva it terms of its business plan, its blueprint for expansion, its educational philosophy, and the ways it might succeed—or fail.

“The more I looked into Minerva and its operations, the more I started to think that certain functions of universities have simply become less relevant as information has become more ubiquitous,” Wood writes. “Just as learning to read in Latin was essential before books became widely available in other languages, gathering students in places where they could attend lectures in person was once a necessary part of higher education. But by now books are abundant, and so are serviceable online lectures by knowledgeable experts.”

You can read Wood’s conclusions, keeping in mind that Minerva is in its infancy. But as Wood shows in the piece, the venture is already making some in traditional higher education nervous.

The September issue also has articles on online education and MOOCs, for-profit law schools, and a review of Elizabeth Green’s new book, Building a Better Teacher.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.