As the school year winds to an end, many parents of high school seniors are making final decisions with their budding college freshman about where to attend college. Not so in my family. We are waiting with bated breath to see if my son Nick actually graduates. He’s developed an extensive case of high school burnout, and if it were not for the talents of his AP history teacher, Adam Gadnis, and Nick's ability to take some classes online, I don’t know if my son would be walking down the aisle and throwing up a cap in June.
Nick has plenty of natural smarts—enrolled in all AP and Honors classes — but something about the traditional classroom has lost his interest. I’ve been researching other post-secondary opportunities for Nick -- gap year programs , tutoring English abroad, jobs in Australia — but his resistance to college seems to be as much about resisting control tactics from his parents or teachers as from anything else.
Recent news about the Minerva Project,  a new “elite” university — the “first in a century” -- caught my attention last week. This school, which is scheduled to open in 2014, will be largely online, designed for global students who want a degree with U.S. academic prestige but who seek a cheaper price tag than what many private or Ivy League schools demand. ($20,000 per year is being mentioned in Minerva PR…). According to the web site, students will be taught by "the world's most inspirational and engrossing professors."
Besides hosting a web page with a graphic of the Roman goddess Mineva and “Critical Wisdom” written below her image, contemporary academic “celebrities” are connected with this new endeavor. Harvard’s Larry Summers is chairman of the advisory board that also includes former New School leader and U.S. Pres. hopeful Bob Kerry. Minerva was founded by former Snapfish CEO and U of Penn graduate, Ben Nelson. Nelson saw an opportunity in the painfully overpriced academic market as well as a demand for a rethinking of the traditional classroom. Ivy League schools have maxed out on their enrollment and real estate holdings for now, while global student demand for top U.S. college education is rising.
Nelson was generous enough to answer a few of my questions over email recently.
First, I wanted to know about F2F (face-to-face) contact versus online education with Minerva, and whether students would be able to meet each other and socialize. Nelson assured me that students would be encouraged to spend “their freshman year in their home countries and then every semester thereafter in a different location around the world; e.g. Sao Paolo, Moscow, Shanghai, Mumbai, Amman and Chicago.” Classes will be online. If students do not complete assignments then “the student doesn’t pass.” Every “assignment” will require both “an individual and a group component,” says Nelson. Many courses will be interdisciplinary and majors will be offered across 20 academic areas.
I appreciate the fact that Nelson recognizes the importance of collaborative group work, as well as some social contact in living situations. Moving around every semester or every year may be taxing for some undergrads, though. As reported in a recent Atlantic  article by Jordan Weissman, Nelson is very enthusiastic about the global opportunities that this online educational structure can facilitate. “We are creating a civilian West Point” says Nelson. “The people who will get into and graduate from Minerva will be, bar none, the best students on the planet… There will not be a single Minerva class that will not change your life perception.”
Needless to say, I was excited at this new educational possibility for Nick, while I have my doubts about my son’s ability to stick with online instruction. (He’s completed online work in high school already with mixed results.) But perhaps, if there is a vibrant social component and close friends who will move campuses with him combined with interesting travel opportunities, then Nick may actually be interested.
I’m curious to see what develops…