Around the World in Eight Semesters

What does it take to reset the higher education brand?

That’s a question best reserved for a man like Ben Nelson. As the founder of Minerva, a post-secondary education institution devoid of a campus and live professors in its lecture halls, Nelson is determined to provide a left-of-field answer. Minerva positions itself through a highly innovative approach to higher education: Defining itself with modernization over tradition, mobility over a fixed location, and a guarantee of living up to its brand promise over the age-old, Pomp and Circumstance prestige of the Ivy Leagues.

Though the Minerva experience contains elements typical of most higher education institutions – an application, four years of curricula taught by faculty whose research is also enabled by the institution, a senior thesis – that is where the commonalities end. The university is based in up to seven different locations, each within a cultural and socioeconomic capital. Students in a class of 150 begin their first year in the university’s headquarters in San Francisco and are expected to continue onwards in a different location each semester, fully steeping themselves in local culture both within and outside of curriculum contexts. Its “Student Life” page promises not a football field or vine-clad libraries, but Hong Kong dim sum and Cape Town beaches. Seminars are taught through a live video feed of a professor, guaranteeing individual attention of each student. All assignments are given on a practical rather than theoretical basis: for example, an investigative piece on a local issue, reported and executed for local news.

Nelson sees the uniqueness of the Minerva experience as a reflection of what’s missing in higher education branding today. “Great brands change the operation of the entity to optimize on brand promise. If we think about the world’s greatest university, everything we do is around creating this perfect system: something that will deliver on that brand promise that we make. We chose to actually provide the very best educational experience, both in formal and co- and extracurricula.” Rejecting what he deems as prestige-driven “external visible markers” – such as newfangled facilities or Nobel prizewinners whose research is no longer relevant – as what determines the value of a higher education brand, Nelson instead chooses to focus on what truly matters: the curricula. What his students yield with that experience will speak for itself.

To further legitimatize the quality and intent of Minerva’s schooling and brand, a strategic partnership with the Claremont University Consortiums Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) was established. As home to the world’s first applied sciences Masters program which allows for institutionalized sciences to apply in a business context – later adopted by hundreds of programs across the globe – KGI’s reputation as a truly multidisciplinary establishment made for an ideal incubator.

Perhaps the most obvious need for resetting education is its financial barrier to entry. The vast information-scape that is today’s internet does little justice to the tuition fees demanded by most renowned post-secondary institutions. Call it archaic, or classist; Nelson calls it unfair. “The concept of knowing the students can learn basics like calculus or psychology for free, [and then coming] into your university and paying thousands of dollars for those courses? That’s just not ethical,” he says. Beyond its embrace of different cultures and disciplines, Minerva’s inclusivity is also quantified; its total yearly cost is $28,850. That’s a fraction of what’s demanded by most renowned post-secondary institutions. Minerva’s pledge of a global impact, with a future generation of innovators, can only occur if a global demographic of students has access – never mind the barriers imposed by socioeconomic factors.

A reset, however, implies a homecoming. Far from taking over with live video feeds, Nelson in fact bemoans the absence of tradition in American higher education today. Today’s universities base its curricula on industry-specific knowledge and information, segregating its students and their know-how in the process. In contrast, Minerva’s curricula is based on critical analysis and creative thinking; what Nelson calls “fundamental aspects of critical thinking in intellectual education,” building a genuine community of students and faculty. The value of a liberal arts education is reminded, rescued, and repackaged.

This notion of modernized tradition in higher learning is in the institution’s very name: Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and just war, guiding students in the battle of a post-graduation world. “[If our students] are out in the world trying to make a difference, they’re going to be in highly competitive and difficult situations. They need to have the critical wisdom to come up with these ideas – these transformational models for society.”

Student Experience:

01/ Residence halls open in San Francisco, Minerva’s headquarters. Students undergo a week’s worth of orientation. Freshmen are required to take four year-long courses, comprised of what Nelson deems a “common intellectual language.” All classes are 19-person, industry-independent seminars, structured to require interactive discussion and group-work. Each student has his or her own camera for the course’s professor to deliver knowledge via video. The information and workload of each class is relevant to and built around one another, unifying each student’s curricula. Fall and winter semesters are approximately four months long, leaving room for a four-month summer break intended for internships, research, or general self-exploration.

02/ Sophomore year sees students breaking into cohorts of 150, making up a class who will then travel to at most six different countries over the next six semesters. From then on, the Minerva experience is made of three components. The curriculum is independent of the student’s location and structured around the intended major and concentration. The co-curriculum is dependent on the student’s location, culture and economy: For example, the business student in China can take advantage of the chaotic pace of the budding Chinese markets. Lastly, the location-based curriculum fuses both the educational and experiential components, challenging the student to combine their local presence with their global resources. An aspiring journalist may edit Minerva’s student newspaper, but as one with 25 different bureaus.

03/ The Senior thesis. Show then tell is Minerva’s maxim. Nelson encourages peer-review and grading on a public basis. Students are to apply and test their innovative ideas to their actual field. Entrepreneurs can chronicle the rise and fall of a start-up; aspiring politicians can draft a bill. “What we’re trying to do is blend their formal training with a bridge to create something meaningful to society,” says Nelson.

Caroline Leung is the editor of MISC and a writer at Idea Couture. She is based in Toronto, Canada.


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Caroline Leung