For Ben Nelson, academics runs in his blood. His father Nathan is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Tel Aviv University and winner of the 2013 Israel Prize in Life Sciences. His mother Hannah, was a high school biology teacher in Israel for 20 years before spending the subsequent 20 years running Nathan’s lab. One sister, Lee-Bath, considered a career as a finance professor before ultimately turning to venture capital.
Now, with his for-profit start-up Minerva based in San Francisco, Ben Nelson is trying to build an elite American university from scratch, at a quarter of the cost to attend an Ivy League school.
Nelson began his new venture in September 2010, when he was the 35 year-old President of Snapfish, the web-based photo sharing and printing service scooped up by HP for $300 million in 2005. He decided to pick up on a project he floated during his idealist days as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania — shocking those who knew him. “I think everyone pretty much thought I was out of my mind,” quipped Nelson.
Minerva, said Nelson, is “on the surface, a very traditional university.” Degrees will take four years to complete, students will attend classes and pick majors. Unlike most universities, however, Minerva’s focus will be to teach students skills that are valued by employers, and that will translate into real life, said Nelson. For example, he said, Minerva will not offer Art or Art History, rather Art and Commerce — teaching students how to make a living via the arts.
So far, only the four introductory “cornerstone” classes have been designed by Minerva’s four founding deans — Professor Stephen Kosslyn from Harvard, Professor Dan Levitin of McGill University, Dr. Eric Bonabeau, and Professor Diane F. Halpern of Claremont McKenna College.
Annual tuition for Minerva is $10,000. Including room and board, technology, books and health insurance, the estimated total cost is $28,500 per year. It’s significantly less than cost of an education at Harvard ($39,000 annual tuition, and a total estimated outlay of $60,000 – $65,000 per year), the University of Pennsylvania ($46,000 tuition and estimated $60,000 per year) or Columbia ($47,000 tuition and estimated $65,000 per year).
What’s more, students of the founding Fall 2014 class will have their tuition waived for all four years, plus one free year in the Minerva San Francisco residence halls.
After their first year in San Francisco, students will spend the following three years studying in major cities around the world, including Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, London, Mumbai and others; the assigned cities will rotate every semester. Since all classes are delivered seminar-style on a WebRTC platform, students are not required to remain in any one location, thus enabling a revolving study-abroad experience.
How is Minerva able to offer so much and charge far less than the Ivy League schools? Well, for starters, they received $25 million in venture funding from Benchmark Capital in 2012. In addition, the Minerva organizational structure is much leaner than at traditional universities. Heavily reliant on technology, there are no administrative buildings or classrooms. Governance is simple, and committees small and efficient. There are no tenured professors either; staff “gets paid based on what they do for undergraduates,” said Nelson. In other words, professors aren’t paid to conduct research or go on sabbatical — just teach.
Which means there are no research labs either. If professors need to conduct research as part of the course, they will have to write it into their grant. Minerva doesn’t have any sports teams, and neither does it have gyms, stadiums, arenas, coaches’ salaries, or any of the other “extras” that are ultimately paid for by the student.
The students Minerva is targeting are the best and the brightest from around the world. They are typically of middle class background, unlike those at Ivy League universities, who tend to be from wealthier backgrounds — from families that can afford the best preparatory education, pay the high university tuition costs, or contribute large sums to institutions, thus guaranteeing their children admission. This trend leaves a pool of tremendously talented students of lesser economic means.
The admissions process is extremely tough, one which “most Ivy Leaguers would not pass,” said Nelson. Successful applicants will have displayed strong academic performance and impressive extracurricular activities in high school, passed a series of developed-in-house cognitive and non-cognitive assessments (SAT’s bear no weight; according to many experts, studies show that SAT scores correlate positively to wealth), and successfully passed a one-on-one interview. Each candidate will be evaluated by the admissions committee, made up solely of faculty.
Selecting the first class is going to be tough; Minerva has received “thousands of applications,” said Nelson, but plans on accepting a maximum of 38 students (19 per class) for Fall 2014.
Drawing from this global talent pool runs the risk of a possible “brain drain” effect in the countries where students hail from — a problem Israel, among other countries, struggles with. Nelson, however, isn’t worried; according to him, students won’t become too enmeshed in any particular community, due to the rotating nature of the program.
Nelson himself is a good example of what he is talking about. He was born in Haifa, and moved to the US at age 10, when his father accepted a position in 1985 at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in New Jersey. When his family decided to move back to Israel, he was in the middle of his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, grounded in his adopted country.
But the biggest question remains whether Minerva, an educational institution with zero experience or track record, can deliver its promise of a world-class education worthy of “Ivy League” status? That remains to be seen.