Yet another possible future for higher education?

Chris Peterson, of MIT Admissions, has a terrific piece on Ben Nelson and Larry Summers’ Minerva project, which is properly skeptical of the business model, let alone the educational vision, of such projects.

This week the tech and educational press has been buzzing about the launch of Minerva University. According to its founder, Internet entrepreneur Ben Nelson, Minerva is intended to “tap into the demand for an elite American education from the developing world’s rising middle class.” His proposition is simple and compelling: there are more smart students in the world than there are seats in Ivy League schools, and the elastic enrollment afforded by Minerva’s online format will provide an elite electronic education for those huddles masses yearning to learn.

In support of his subversive educational enterprise Nelson has mustered both heavy artillery and covering fire. The former comes from Benchmark Capital, the VC behemoth which has invested $25 million dollars to found Minerva. The latter comes from the long list of luminaries Nelson has recruited to form his advisory board, including such superstars as Larry Summers (former President of Harvard), Senator Bob Kerrey (former head of the New School), and Pat Harker (president of the University of Delaware and former dean of Wharton, Nelson’s alma mater).

I am a big believer in educational access. Education is awesome. Extending education to those who cannot presently achieve it is extra awesome.

And yet I’m troubled by the Minerva Project; specifically, by the lack of credible answers to a few questions that the painfully shallow news coverage have yet to actually address. So I’m posting them here and trying to think through what some of the answers might be.

Peterson’s take on Minerva is compelling, but what I find especially interesting is that the educational “solution” devised by Summers, Nelson, and their powerful friends perfectly reflects the economic forces we discussed last week at the forum on the future of higher ed.

Minerva represents one of the fullest crystallizations of the for-profit and privatized model of higher ed that I could think of.  Not a trace of education to be found in it.

Yet I am convinced that it will not work except as a way to ” load [Nelson’s] comparatively underleveraged international students with loans that will return an appreciable rate to his investors.”  And I don’t think that either Harvard or UH will be much threatened by this model, unless we decide, suicidally, to embrace it ourselves.




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