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A New "Elite University" Gets $25 Million in Seed Funding
April 3, 2012 - 9:47pm

With all the talk about how the Internet will democratize education, making it possible for anyone anywhere (well, with an Internet connection of course) to access knowledge and connect to experts, the news today about a "elite university" might sound a bit odd. But it's not odd enough to stop Benchmark Capital from giving it $25 million in seed funding, the largest amount in the investment firm's 17-year history.

The new university is called The Minerva Project, and according to CEO Ben Nelson, it recognizes all the free educational resources that are available online. In fact, says Nelson, the university won't ask students to pay tuition for anything that you can learn elsewhere. "You'll never find a foreign language class. You'll never find an introductory class" at the university, he told me in a phone interview today. What you will find is an academically rigorous liberal arts education, more akin to graduate school perhaps or to, according to Nelson, a bygone era when a university education meant you were required to take a bunch of core classes and where you gained critical thinking skills -- and the social certitude, perhaps -- to be able to speak smartly or argue intelligently on any topic.

Describing The Minerva Project as an "elite university in the 21st century model, for the 21st century," Nelson says that the new for-profit, online university challenges the student-university relationship at every stage.

And that isn't just because the bar for admissions will be set incredibly high, argues Nelson, who points to the demand for an elite university education and the inability of the Ivy League to meet those needs. The Minerva Project wants to attract the "most brilliant students in the world" and those with "the biggest drive and passion." The admissions requirements will echo those of other elite universities, demanding high scores on standardized tests, strong high school transcripts. But unlike other universities, there won't be any allowances for "lineage, athletic ability, state or country of origin, or capacity to donate." There'll also be an interview process where students will have to "look us in the eye," says Nelson, to argue why they deserve a seat in the school.

For now, the number of seats will be small, although Nelson says that the university won't be restricted by the same physical limitations that constrain enrollment in the Ivy League. That's because courses will be taught online. The students, however, will live in "dorm clusters." They'll spend their first year in their home country, but then in their sophomore year will move around abroad to other countries' locations. When the university matriculates its first class in 2014, Nelson isn't sure how many of those locations will be ready, but he predicts one location in the U.S., one in Asia, and one in Europe.

Massive online courses have surged in popularity, but Nelson says here too The Minerva Project experience will be different. The focus, he argues will be on "quality teaching," and to that end the university hopes to lure professors to it by offering a "Minerva Prize," a cash prize for the best teaching professors in the world. I pressed him about how he'll lure "the best" to an online, for-profit university, to which he pointed to the abundance of unemployed PhDs who'd be willing to jump at the chance.

The demands for an online "elite university," then, seem to come from both the professoriate and the students, in Nelson's view. And that demand, he argues, is "mind-blowing."

The Minerva Project sounds like an ambitious project, but its backing doesn't just come from a Silicon Valley VC firm. On its board of advisors is Larry Summers, former Harvard President and former Secretary of the Treasury; Patrick Harker, President of the University of Delaware and former Dean of the Wharton School of Business; Senator Bob Kerrey; and Lee Shulman, Emeritus Professor of the Stanford School of Education.

While it has collected a lot of prestigious names for its board, and while it promises to have incredibly high standards for admissions and for academic performance, the Minerva Project does seem to assume that the brand image of any "elite university" can be cultivated with just these pieces in place. I'm not sure that's true. I think there's history and power and strong alumni networks, at the very least, that create this. The Minerva Project does say that it will offer its students access to a strong network to help promote their work and connect them to prestigious jobs and awards and positions in the future.

But like much of the rest of this, it feels like a big gamble. But for $20,000 a year, it's at least a cheaper gamble than other college degrees, I suppose.

 

 

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