Whatever becomes of the Minerva Project,  you have to give the big names behind it credit for aiming high (at least with its rhetoric, which is the only way to judge it thus far).
An entrepreneur who created the photo-sharing site Snapfish -- backed by a star-studded list of advisers (including Larry Summers) and a $25 million investment from a leading venture capital firm -- announced a plan Tuesday with a not-so-modest goal: creating "the first elite American university to be launched in a century."
The project is relatively skimpy on details at this stage, but a few of the new institution's broadly drawn characteristics -- for-profit; purely online instruction -- might make many observers skeptical of its eventual success. But dig a little deeper and the idea sounds a little less wacky -- and reasonable enough to have attracted traditionalists like Patrick Harker, president of the University of Delaware, and Lee Shulman, the former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, to its advisory board.
Ben Nelson, the CEO, distinguishes the new venture from the many recent efforts (like Stanford's open courses and MIT's new offshoot) to use technology to "disrupt" higher education, and from the handful of new entities that have sought to help selective traditional universities reach more students (like 2tor).
"This is not a technology play, it's not a disruption, and I'm not saying, 'Forget your degree, you don't need one,' " like Peter Thiel's experiment offering students $100,000 to forgo college, Nelson said. "I'm not saying any of those things may be invalid; there are plenty of good reasons to have badges [as an alternative to college credentials], and to expand existing programs beyond their reach."
What hasn't been done yet, though, is an effort to put a truly rigorous higher education in the hands of many more students at a lower price, he said. The Ivy League and other highly selective institutions are "elite" because of the large numbers of students they exclude, Nelson asserted, and they charge high prices because they are in demand (though they got that way, of course, because people gauged the education they provide -- developed over decades if not centuries -- as excellent enough to be worth it. The alumni networks don't hurt, either.).
"The definition of eliteness in higher education differs from how it's defined in other categories," he argued. "In most other areas, what makes things elite isn't that people can't buy them; it's that they're the best products of their kind." Think Apple, Nelson said.
Minerva plans to define elite differently, he said. Its students -- roughly 200 in the first year, planned for 2014, and it hopes many more in later years -- will be selected through a rigorous two-step process based on academic credentials (grades, test scores, essays, etc.) at a first, statistical level and then -- for those who move on -- an interview process focused on testing an applicant's drive, analytical skills and goals.
Factors that may help a student get admitted to Princeton or Williams -- athletic skill, alumni connections, money -- won't play any role at Minerva, Nelson said. And because the process won't factor in geography, either, he said he expected that the vast majority of its students will come from outside the United States. "We won't discriminate based on state or country of origin, and the idea that the majority of the smartest English-speaking kids live in the U.S. is absurd," he said. "We're going to have the most racially diverse student body of any elite institution."
But the real test of its eliteness will come in its curriculum, which Nelson compared to "1950s University of Chicago." It aims to hire top professors to create their own online lectures and course materials, and students will also dig into that material in 25-student interactive seminars led by instructors (Ph.D.s who favor teaching over research, for instance, not grad students). While the formal curriculum will be delivered online, students who choose to will live in dorms in major cities around the world, where they will gain from the same kind of peer encounters that enhance the education at liberal arts and other residential colleges.
Admitted students "will have to work like you've never worked in your life," Nelson said. "It's not that we'll shower you with exceptionally advanced work, but that we'll tickle every part of your brain. You'll have to communicate well not just in written form, but in oral form, group work form. The reason that we are 'elite' is because this is a curriculum that is meant to be for the best of the best."
Students who choose to undertake that curriculum will pay under $20,000 for the privilege, Nelson said -- about half of what they'd pay at the Ivy League and other universities that currently define "elite" for most of us. (Those who choose the residential option would pay $11,000 more for room and board.)
Skeptics (like Margaret Soltan ) are likely to doubt various aspects of Minerva's plan, such as its for-profit foundation and perhaps its general presumptuousness.
But it has persuaded Benchmark Capital  to pony up its biggest-ever seed investment and attracted big names such as Summers, the former U.S. treasury secretary and Harvard president, and Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator and president of the New School. Shulman's involvement may be most surprising of all, though, given his credentials  in traditional higher education.