The University of Everywhere

© Charles Williams

Higher education is broken in America, a casualty of exorbitant tuition costs and antiquated methods. The author of The End of College, Kevin Carey finds hope in a new, nomadic school.

Last fall, 28 exceptional students began studying at a new university in San Francisco that looks almost nothing like any college that has ever existed before. They came from 14 countries and five continents, some turning down the Ivy League to attend. The university, called the Minerva Schools at KGI, has no central quad or research labs or football team. Tuition is $10,000 per year, less than a quarter of what many private colleges charge. Much of the instruction takes place on computers. It may be the future of higher learning.

Minerva is the brainchild of an entrepreneur named Ben Nelson. Ivy-educated, with a degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Nelson, 39, had a successful career leading the photo-sharing website Snapfish. But he never forgot his undergraduate days—the deep engagement with history, literature, and philosophy—and feared such opportunities would soon be closed off for millions of potential students.

By the time Nelson reached his mid-30s, American higher education was in crisis. Costs at the best colleges had passed $60,000 per year. Schools like Harvard and Stanford were turning away close to 95 percent of applicants. Meanwhile, public universities were struggling financially. America’s historic leadership in producing college graduates had been surpassed by more than a dozen competitor nations. Research suggested that academic standards at American colleges were lax, with many students passing through and learning little along the way.

To an entrepreneur, it looked like a gigantic opportunity. Many college presidents were more focused on faculty research, new buildings, and the football team than giving students a great education. Despite a surge in demand, Harvard’s undergraduate class hadn’t expanded by a single student in 20 years. Says Nelson, “What other sector of our society takes pride in turning away qualified customers, serves less than 10 percent of qualified global demand, and has a product that in principle is the same as it was in the 19th century?”

Nelson decided to meet that demand by taking advantage of revolutionary developments in information technology. When he went to school, the Web was still in the cradle. Now the globe was connected by cheap, powerful mobile computing devices with nearly infinite storage in the cloud. The physical limits that had constrained how many students a college could teach were gone.

In the past few years, top-tier universities, like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, have begun to adapt to this new environment by offering free courses online through websites like Coursera and edX. Nelson, meanwhile, decided to start a world-class information-age private university from scratch. He raised $25 million in seed funding and hired a scientist named Stephen Kosslyn to create a breakthrough computer-based education platform based on the latest developments in neuroscience and human cognition. Kosslyn is the former chair of the Harvard psychology department and the former director of Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Other Minerva professors were hired from the likes of Harvard, Stanford, and McGill. Nelson also recruited luminaries like former Harvard president and U.S. treasury secretary Larry Summers as advisers. The University of Phoenix, this ain’t.

There are no large, impersonal lectures at Minerva. Students don’t pick courses based on what happens to be available or promises an easy grade. Everyone completes an intensive curriculum focused on social sciences, natural sciences, computational sciences, and arts and humanities. Every Minerva class is an in-depth seminar conducted using real-time video linking students with peers around the world. The software platform, Kosslyn explains, “allows us to keep students engaged in a wide variety of different types of activities. Because we record the seminars, we can code the students’ performance and give them immediate feedback on how well they have understood the material.” After the freshman year in San Francisco, every semester will take place in a different global city, like Shanghai, Mumbai, São Paulo, or Jerusalem. Because Minerva isn’t bound to a physical campus built centuries ago, the university can grow to serve every student with the talent and discipline to get a world-class education.

Minerva isn’t the only company or college using technology to disrupt higher education, an industry that has withstood every modern innovation, from the telegraph to radio to cable TV, and emerged largely unchanged. The years ahead will show just how game-changing Minerva can be. But whether it succeeds in fully embodying Ben Nelson’s vision or not, it is surely a sign of things to come.

Adapted from The End of College (Riverhead, March 3).