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A Screen-Only School in San Francisco

It’s the start of another school year, and soon the same thought will pass through the minds of many college students: “Where is all my money going?”

Ben Nelson, former CEO of Snapfish, is trying to prove that the answer to that question has little to do with education by creating a new college from the ground up: Minerva, sometimes referred to as the Minerva Project. Nelson hasn’t just built any old college, he says he’s built an elite higher education institution. How do we know that this school is a veritable online Ivy? Fawning stories in the press say so.

Inevitably, all such stories include the two most important facts about Minerva: it’s a for-profit school, and instruction takes place almost entirely online. While Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) educate thousands of people at once, Minerva provides small, intense online courses that are meant to mimic those at elite, face-to-face institutions, or even improve upon them. However, Minerva’s friends in the press corps never consider how being both for-profit and online undermines the foundations of an elite education.

Of course, the University of Phoenix has made a fortune offering basic instruction mostly online to students that Ivy League schools would never touch. However, no newcomer before Minerva has tried to compete with the Harvards and Yales of the world, precisely because that kind of education is so resource-intensive. Nelson’s hope is that by cutting out football, offices, most administrators, and many of the buildings, he and his investors can pocket the difference and still provide a world-class education at the same time.

This, of course, is the same kind of leap of faith that today’s tech investors make every day. A long story in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood this month describes its business plan the same way that Silicon Valley publications like Techcrunch describe any hot start-up with a half decent publicist:

The Minerva boast is that it will strip the university experience down to the aspects that are shown to contribute directly to student learning. Lectures, gone. Tenure, gone. Gothic architecture, football, ivy crawling up the walls—gone, gone, gone. What’s left will be leaner and cheaper. (Minerva has already attracted $25 million in capital from investors who think it can undercut the incumbents.) And Minerva officials claim that their methods will be tested against scientifically determined best practices, unlike the methods used at other universities and assumed to be sound just because the schools themselves are old and expensive.

If traditional universities are bad because they’re old and expensive, this school will be new and cheap–but not cheap enough so that just anybody could attend. (That would be neither prestigious nor profitable.)

Minerva welcomed its first class a few weeks ago. While there are no regular faculty yet, Wood suggests that Minerva wants “to lure a few prominent scholars from existing institutions” in the hope of boosting its status. Let’s hope the pay is really, really good at Minerva, because the kinds of professors who can transmit prestige will need an awful lot of incentive to give up both tenure and the scholarship-related perks (like labs) that elite universities provide. Prestige is expensive by definition. Otherwise, almost anyone could have it.

While Minerva deserves kudos for at least taking education seriously as a process, there appears to be little in the way it teaches that makes its brand of education better, other than the fact that it happens online. Wood, who sat in on one class reports, that the instructor, Eric Bonabeau:

led the class like a benevolent dictator, subjecting us to pop quizzes, cold calls, and pedagogical tactics that during an in-the-flesh seminar would have taken precious minutes of class time to arrange. He split us into groups to defend opposite propositions…. No one needed to shuffle seats; Bonabeau just pushed a button, and the students in the other group vanished from my screen, leaving my three fellow debaters and me to plan, using a shared bulletin board on which we could record our ideas.

While Wood suggests that this class was taught more efficiently than it might have been at Yale, there is no reason to believe that it was taught any better.

There’s a kind of chicken-and-egg problem at play in the Minerva experiment. Is an elite school elite because people say it’s elite, and therefore quality people teach and learn there? Or is an elite school elite because its quality makes it selective? Nelson seems to believe that he can create an elite school from scratch by force of will, or at least with lots of money and good PR. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that there might be actually some substance behind the prestige of a traditional education, and that providing that substance will cost a lot of money.

Will Minerva be more interested in prestige or profit? If his investors behave the same way that investors in other tech companies do, we should bet on the latter. If those investors were really interested in offering students the highest-quality education possible, they wouldn’t be trying to make a profit from it. Students who want the best education available for their money should consider which school really has their best interests at heart.