Traditional education is no longer the only option for a great learning experience. Technology has transformed the way we experience education, and Minerva, based in San Francisco, trades exams and essays for hands-on experience in a variety of foreign countries and work environments.
Minerva’s structure has answered the demand from non-traditional students who want a way around the longtime assumption that you need a high GPA and bachelor’s degree to land a good job. Scholars who attend the liberal arts university will certainly get a degree, but instead of slapping grades on a report card and requiring students to “regurgitate information,” Minerva founder Ben Nelson says he wants to teach critical thinking.
“You cannot teach yourself how to think critically,” Nelson said, recalling the general motto of Minerva. “You actually have to go through a structured process. What is sad is that wisdom is wasted on the old. Wisdom should be the tool for the young.”
This is the case at Minerva, Nelson insists, even though all its programs are delivered online. The institution has developed a structure that empowers professors to work closely with students to keep each one engaged and expand students’ thought processes beyond traditional coursework.
Minerva isn’t like other online universities, however. Students get to travel the world, and spend a year apiece in Buenos Aires, Taipei, San Francisco, and Berlin. In each place, they’ll take location-appropriate classes and complete hands-on learning that’s designed for their destination residence.
Standardized testing is not part of the curriculum, and neither are midterms and final exams. Student “grades” will be based on performance in the real-world setting, which the founders argue is a better way to prepare them for the workforce.
The price is surprisingly reasonable considering what you’re getting. Students are assessed $29,000 per year, including room and board. It’s a little more than the average traditional college tuition of about $20,000 a year, but when you factor in the travel and boarding costs, it may seem a lot more manageable.
It’s not easy to get in. The acceptance rate at Minerva is just 1.9 percent. The school would like to compete with Harvard’s liberal arts program ideally, which charges $63,000 per year and has an acceptance rate of 5.2 percent.
(For comparison, the nationwide average acceptance rate at state universities is 66 percent.)
At this point, a definitive assessment of how well the program works cannot yet be made. The first classes began in 2014, so it will be at least two more years before a telling measure such as employment rate for the 270 people currently enrolled can be divined. Since evidence of success is not yet available, some observers have been understandably skeptical.
This liberal arts program defies the pattern set by, and dominant, in traditional colleges. There are no labs, test tubes, or tests to measure success at this point. In short, Minerva is a relatively unknown program with no proven results.
“You’ve got to have something that proves to the people that are going to hire that you can do the job,” director of Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce Anthony Carnevale said. “Given the fluidity of the job market, it’s strangers talking to strangers, so you’ve got to have a piece of paper. It’s a signal, it’s a proof.”
That’s the current challenge for Minerva. The school might float a claim of being capable of competing with Harvard, but it will be hard to sustain such claims until proof is in.
It will be a few years before we have the evidence that Carnevale and others have demanded, but the program remains an intriguing educational concept. A recurring complaint about universities these days is the relative lack of hands-on time in the field. Minerva could offer the balance that’s been missing, but only time will deliver the confirmation.