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Innovation in Higher Education: Minerva Project

Aparna Sud. December 2014

Tried, tested, and true, the age-old model of education has yet to be revamped since over a century, until very recently with the launch of Minerva Project. A for-profit institution, Minerva has questioned the status quo in efforts to transform the process of learning within the university setting. As the founder Ben Nelson puts it, Minerva is the first real attempt at a high-end rigorous higher education system since the 1870s.

As Nelson describes, the aim for Minerva is to be the aspirational standard and norm for other institutions, exemplifying the future of higher education. As the sector continues to evolve, most universities will eventually be forced to adapt and convert to an alternate model, as the current one is no longer sustainable.

From Nelson’s perspective, the crux of the problem in higher education is most universities claim to teach students how to think, but few actually do. Minerva, on the other hand, utilizes an active learning approach that is outcomes-driven to groom undergraduates as our future leaders. The hope is for alumni to be adequately equipped to make well-optimized and informed decisions scaling in global impact and influence.

A Unique Pedagogical Approach

Within the classroom setting, Minerva integrates key competencies of innovators and leaders in a systematic and carefully intended manner, rather than relying on content dissemination, typical of most universities. In teaching students how to think, Minerva professors instill both habits of the mind, cognitive skills that become second nature over time, in addition to foundational concepts, knowledge that can be readily applied and built on. As a result, graduates walk-away from their Minerva experience with the ability to think critically, think creatively, and communicate effectively.

Minerva’s pedagogical approach is largely based on the transition of theory into practice. In developing a strong educational foundation, Minerva trains students in their first year on four main systems as part of their core curriculum: algorithmic (assess and analyze hard data), empirical (observe, test hypotheses, and come to conclusions), complex (apply findings and theories to a real-world context), and rhetorical (enable communication of insights and amassed knowledge). From then on, students enroll in classes according to their academic area of interest. Students may not pursue a minor, but are encouraged to attain a double major or double concentration if they wish to do so. Students’ final year culminates in a final capstone project focused on solving a challenging problem or issue of global significance. By way of an alliance established with KGI (Keck Graduate Institute), part of the Claremont Consortium, students graduate with an accredited bachelor’s degree. The end outcome of Minerva’s laser focus and emphasis on higher-order goals helps graduates to develop necessary and relevant skill-set relevant for the 21st century.

With a cap of 19 students, the classroom is primarily discussion-oriented and technology is a strategic component to Minerva’s teaching style. Minerva’s utilizes video based seminars to deliver online classes in any city worldwide via their proprietary live, real-time technology platform. Creating a virtual, active learning environment, Minerva pushes students to stay fully engaged and focused for the entire duration of the class. Professors mandate that students actively listen and evaluate their classmates when others are speaking, enabling thoughtful reflection and consequent value-add to comments made.

Key stakeholders from local and outside community are often brought into Minerva to speak, expose, and inspire students as a supplement to the professor-student dynamic. Students can also take advantage of co-curricular activities to supplement their classes. The university provides lifelong career support services for alumni as well, which includes consulting, networking, publicity and entrepreneurial guidance to help ascertain future career growth and success. Although Minerva’s novel method of teaching has yet to be vetted, unsolicited applications from more than 700 faculty members to date, demonstrate an unbelievable level of early traction and excitement among educators.

Delivering Education within a Global Context

Minerva fuses active learning modules with a social experience of global magnitude. As opposed to insulating students from society to live within a confined campus, a well-known staple of US universities, Minerva throws its students into the heart of the city, triggering their “survival” instinct, to simply live, interact, and absorb their surroundings. A game-changer for students, Minerva provides the bare minimum, a simple bed and full kitchen, encouraging students to walk to the grocery store, explore nearby restaurants and eateries, join a local gym, and fully immerse in the city’s culture. According to Nelson, a key driver in preparing universal leaders, thinkers, and doers is appreciating, integrating into, and learning from the complexities of the real world. Without the “bubble” of a traditional college campus to shelter students, they are forced to behave as adults, adapting and adjusting to real-world hurdles they may encounter upon graduation, which inherently eases the many times difficult transition phase alumni face.

Minerva reflects a fundamental vision that only through preparation of global citizens will enable future growth of the global economy. In doing so, the university has multiple stakes in leading cities worldwide. Students spend their first and last semester in the San Francisco Bay Area and from there mobilize to campuses in Buenos Aires, Berlin, Hong Kong, Mumbai, London and New York with the option of experiencing a different city each year. When considering expanding Minerva’s model and taking into account a different educational approach for various regions, Nelson speaks to the model’s adaptability on a global scale. According to Nelson, the concept of different learning styles is pure myth. On the most basic level, every student can be educated in the same manner, which is agnostic to his or her regional or cultural background.

Admissions and Tuition

Accessible and affordable, Minerva’s tuition rate is a jaw-dropping $10,000 per year and students are expected to pay for room, board, insurance, books and miscellaneous expenses, amounting to $18,850 per year. In driving towards delivering a premier educational service at an affordable price, Minerva has to operate with a sense of urgency. For that reason, Nelson has made the conscious choice to establish Minerva as a for-profit institution. However, the university chooses not to invest in expensive real estate, infrastructure, or collegiate sports, but rather delegate its funds to crafting a superior educational experience for its students.

With price tag so low, standards are extremely high. Admission is solely determined by individual accomplishment of applicants including grades, creativity evaluated through a series of cognitive and non-cognitive online tests, and face-to-face interviews via a video evaluation. However, as an upside Minerva offers admission to all students who qualify. Minerva’s 2014 inaugural class represents the first 150 students (or geniuses) eager to test a new educational model. Composed of a majority of international students, Minerva’s first cohort stems from 13 different countries and 5 different continents. Balanced in gender, the class is >60% females without any premeditated balancing of gender, geography, or income.

The Minerva Advantage

As a pioneer of a next-generation approach to higher education, Minerva has yet to demonstrate validated results but shows tremendous promise and high potential. As the new 21st century model for higher education, Minerva is truly disrupting the industry, shaping the next generation of thinkers, leaders, innovators, and inspiring other universities to do the same.