• April 18, 2014

An Idea Too Sensible to Try, Until Now

An Idea Too Sensible to Try, Until Now 1

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

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Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

Most of the tech entrepreneurs I've met are in their 20s and seem younger, animated by the idea of a limitless future. Most of the college presidents I've met are in their 50s or 60s and seem older, as if they'd emerged from the womb with a conservative haircut, dark suit, and stentorian voice given to proclamations about the noble mission of academe. Ben Nelson is in his late 30s and seems to be neither a tech entrepreneur nor a college president, which may be why he is actually both, having recently founded the Minerva Project, billed as the "first elite American university to be launched in a century."

Minerva, based in San Francisco, has not yet enrolled any students. It currently consists of Nelson, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and former chief executive of the online-photo company Snapfish, and his ideas about what a technology-fueled global university could be. That combination was enough for Benchmark Capital, an early investor in eBay and Twitter, to give Nelson $25-million this year to make his vision real.

To get that kind of money, you need to be able to speak with total confidence, in the present tense, about something that does not, strictly speaking, exist. Nelson is very good at this, and venture capitalists are partly in the business of investing in sales pitches they believe will appeal to other venture capitalists. The Keynesian beauty contest is alive and well in Silicon Valley.

That said, it's a good pitch, which goes something like this: America has most of the world's most prestigious universities. Everybody wants them, and they have enormously valuable global brands. But they are old, technically nonprofit, and not getting any bigger, partly because they don't want to, and partly because getting bigger under their existing business model is enormously expensive. Yale, for example, is expanding its undergraduate enrollment by about 800, or 15 percent, which involves erecting two more of those huge rectangular courtyard-enclosing buildings they have there, at a cost of some $600-million, or enough money to launch Minerva 24 times over.

Meanwhile, the cold war is over, the world's largest nations are industrializing, and the global middle class is expanding at a phenomenal rate. Those people understand as well as anyone that college degrees are crucial, and that the best colleges are American. But there is simply no way for the best American colleges of today to meet this surging demand. If you enroll only a few thousand students a year, and you need to set aside spots for athletes, legacies, underserved minorities, at least one student from every state, senators' sons, and the children of people who have rendered large bribes unto the university—sorry, "development admits"—there's little room left.

Minerva is designed to soak up that excess demand, and provide a better education to boot. Admissions will be based strictly on academics, a kind of pure meritocracy that Caltech most closely approximates today. There will be a rigorous, mandatory undergraduate curriculum, in the spirit of the Hutchins-era University of Chicago. Minerva won't offer commodity courses like Econ 101. Students will be admitted as early as the end of their junior year in high school and be expected to get up to speed on the prerequisites before they enroll. Grading policies will be strict, and those who don't measure up will flunk out.

Minerva's undergraduates will be encouraged to live in their home countries or in the United States for the first year, then spend each of the next six semesters living in a different global city, like Shanghai, Mumbai, Sao Paulo, and Jerusalem. While students will live together, the instruction itself will take place online, allowing students around the world to engage in a common academic experience simultaneously. That also means there's no theoretical limit on how many students Minerva can enroll, and marginal costs will decline as classes grow. According to Nelson, that means he can charge less than half of typical Ivy League tuition rates and still end up in the black. Professors will teach part of the year and have the rest free for research.

All of this is predicated on the idea that a brand-new, unconventional, for-profit university can predefine itself as "elite." That's a tall order. Elite status as currently realized in American higher education is substantially self-defining: Everybody wants to go to the colleges that everybody wants to go to. In that sense, it's a lot like venture capital: It doesn't necessarily matter if the thing itself is any good as long as everyone else is along for the ride.

Nelson responds by saying that Minerva will be more elite than the established players, objectively speaking. Because its admissions policies aren't de facto biased against non-Americans, it will have a larger pool to recruit from. It will use all available information to create admissions standards of Caltechian heights while simultaneously adding another layer of rigor with the tough undergraduate curriculum itself—an element conspicuously missing at many elite American colleges.

Recognizing that some baked-in gravitas can't hurt, Nelson has recruited luminaries like the former Harvard president Larry Summers and the former New School president Bob Kerrey to his board of advisers. What's more, Minerva won't be distracted by the need to manage real-estate holdings, placate needy alumni, chase after rogue athletics departments, or beg from state legislatures. Those things cost money, too.

Minerva's investment proposition is a bit like living in an alternate universe where Apple is a nonprofit organization that has built the world's greatest smartphone, clad in diamonds and gold, but is allowed to sell it to only 2,000 people a year. It might be gorgeous and useful, and owning one would be a mark of enormous prestige, but the real money is in selling to everyone who can afford an iPhone worldwide.

Indeed, the Minerva pitch is so sensible that it seems like something that nobody has done because if it were that sensible, someone would have done it before. But then you realize that our new world of a globally distributed, technology-enabled middle class has barely begun. Wonderful though they are, elite American universities are badly positioned to give anything but a small fraction of those people what they want and need. That could change, of course, and the rise of elite-sponsored MOOC's over the past year suggests that the top colleges and universities are waking up to the possibility of their impending obsolescence. Ben Nelson won't be the last person trying to get there first.

Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation.

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