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Through the lens of Minerva: How to choose a university

Posted by Devin Cole  May 8, 2012 11:58 AM

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Three months ago I got up on my high horse to preach about the advantages and disadvantages of getting a PhD. In the meantime, I have had the pleasure of talking to Ben Nelson about what to look for when applying for an undergraduate degree.

Ben Nelson.JPG

Ben Nelson

Ben has thought deeply about the demand for elite higher education (see his TED talk), and he recently raised $25 million to launch a university called The Minerva Project. It will cater to the tens of thousands of people that meet all the academic requirements of other elite universities. Below, I will list the five most important things that Ben thinks should matter to applicants. To help explain, I will compare and contrast Minerva with existing universities.

Most challenges to existing higher education these days focus on technology. Minerva uses online technology, but the main point of the project is not technology – it is catering to the demand.

What do students need, and what should universities aim to supply?

  1. Status
  2. Chance of getting in
  3. Pedagogy
  4. Student life
  5. Student-university relationship after graduation

A degree from an Ivy League University is so attractive that the number of applicants far exceeds those accepted. That its status will rub off on alumni is one important reason – perhaps more important even than the education you receive. As non-elite universities are quick to point out, you can also learn stuff at other universities - possibly more and better. But whether or not you get a superior education at Ivies or not: their status is undoubted.

The problem for most of us is that we will not get in. Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford etc. simply cannot expand to accept the many, many applicants who desire an association with their brand. Unlike the Ivies, Minerva can scale. Its campuses will be rented and they can move if need be. So students satisfying Ivy League schools' entrance requirements, while still unlikely to be accepted by an Ivy League school, will be accepted by Minerva. (I forgot to ask Ben, but he might have to worry about Groucho Marx's dictum: I don't want to be a member of a club that wants me as a member.)

Ben thinks students really ought to consider the prevailing pedagogy of different universities before applying. For example, Brown has a very open-ended program where a student can gather the requisite credits however he or she wants. This will suit some students and not others. Columbia, by contrast, is more structured and perhaps rigid in its organization of progress towards a bachelor's degree. Penn is very interdisciplinary and excels in mixing degrees, such as business and technology. Harvard Business School is the home of the case study. Students should aim to understand a university's pedagogy and choose according to their own personalities.

The Minerva Project aims for a very clear articulation of its pedagogy, involving theoretical analysis, empirical analysis and such like. The clear articulation is also intended as a guiding framework, in the sense that the US Constitution is a guiding framework for a nation. This might assist Minerva acquiring a clearer brand name than the organically grown elite universities where, more often than not, different kinds of pedagogy co-exist.

Student life also matters greatly. Some students value urban life, others a bucolic setting. Some desire a lot of interaction, others prefer secluded contemplation. How can you meet your peers, how is learning facilitated? The Minerva Project caters to students that desire an urban and global experience, while living and learning with your peers.

There are many advantages to online courses, not least cost, but there is something about the seminar, or the discussion group where a teacher facilitates a discussion among the students, that simply yields unmatched learning – and that requires people to be in the same room. The University of Phoenix and many other online education initiatives are missing this one important piece. In order to compete at all with the elites, the Minerva Project has to play here, not just focus on cost cutting technology. But it is happy to cut cost, such as with real estate. Minerva will have campuses in several urban centers of the world (just as Hult Business School does), encourage students to move, and maximize interaction between students at different campuses. In other words: urban, global, and using seminar-style learning. The fees are therefore projected to be about half of Ivies', not the very low fees online learning can offer.

And finally the student-university relationship after graduation: here Minerva aims to improve greatly on existing universities by actively supporting the alum in his or her career, forever. The Ivy League alum gets merely passive career support by being associated with the elite brand. Because Minerva can scale and accept tens of thousands of students, its business model does not rely on fundraising and development. The Minerva alum will not receive glossy pamphlets from the development office suggesting charitable donations, quite the opposite. Possibly, this might help Minerva achieve the high status it needs quickly. Larry Summers certainly believes so; he is on Minerva's board.

Minerva's success remains to be seen, of course, but the articulation of its business model (revenue from a scalable student body) which contrasts with that of established universities (revenue from alumni and sponsors) while focusing on demand rather than technology (online/offline), to my mind, enables applicants to get a clearer sense of what to consider when applying for university.

Arne Hessenbruch is a Danish expat and the founder of Boston Denmark Partnerships, where he connects Danish companies with an interest in doing business in Boston.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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