Minerva Project Maturing, Aspires to Become Online Ivy League Rival

A completely online university wants to compete with the Ivy League. The Minerva Project is an accredited, for-profit college that wants to become the first elite online American liberal arts institution.

CEO Ben Nelson is the brains behind photo company Snapfish, which he sold to Hewlett-Packard for $300 million. While Nelson has absolutely no familiarity with higher education, other than his own college experience, he has brought in some "academic stars" to help with the process.

His first step was to hire neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn, who also happens to be a former Harvard University dean, to create the school's curriculum.

"My entire critique of higher education started with curricular reform at Penn," says Nelson. "General education is nonexistent. It's effectively a buffet, and when you have a noncurated academic experience, you effectively don't get educated. You get a random collection of information. Liberal-arts education is about developing the intellectual capacity of the individual, and learning to be a productive member of society. And you cannot do that without a curriculum."

The school was given a fast-track to accreditation through its partnership with the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California.

Minerva was designed to offer a quality education at minimal cost. There is no campus, nor classrooms, although the company does maintain an office in downtown San Francisco. The idea is to have students learn the material on their own, hopefully through free, open courses. Minerva does not want to teach students what to think, but how to think.

Lectures are not allowed. Courses are limited to 19 students, and take on the feel of a seminar.

The first class of 33 students began classes last month, living in dorms in San Francisco. The company hopes to open the school to a worldwide community in the coming years allowing students to gain cultural experiences as well as a world-class education as they spend each academic year on a different place.

The company hopes to open schools in cities such as Berlin and Buenos Aires by 2016, and then continue to Mumbai, Hong Kong, New York and London.

Tuition is expected to remain at $28,000 per year, and although room and board are included, federal aid is not accepted. However, it is still a savings of almost $30,000 when compared to many other schools that Minerva is trying to compete with. The company does plan on offering financial aid to those who need it.

Minerva hopes to eventually have as many as 2,500 students in each year's class, giving the company an annual revenue of about $280 million.

The company does not consider SAT scores in its admittance process. Nelson feels that people with more money have more access to higher SAT scores, and the scores therefore do not accurately reflect how well a student will perform in their college years.

Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar colleges around the country are finding ways to keep up. Purdue University President Mitch Daniels is hard at work thinking of how the campus can pass the "pajamas test," or rather, how the university can make the campus experience more enticing than getting a degree at home in your pajamas.

Daniels says lowering student expenses and loan debt is the first step, and he plans on continuing the process by lowering the total cost of textbooks.

Last week, Daniels announced a partnership with Amazon.com, which will allow students to save 30% on new textbooks, and higher amounts on used books and rentals.

Daniels has also introduced a three-year tuition freeze and a 10% cut on room and board in his efforts to make college more affordable. "It all adds up," he said.

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