Entrepreneur Ben Nelson of Minerva Project: Recreating universities

Mr Ben Nelson, who founded a different kind of university, believes the traditional admissions process measures income, not aptitude and effort.
Mr Ben Nelson, who founded a different kind of university, believes the traditional admissions process measures income, not aptitude and effort.PHOTO: MARTIN KLIMEK

In the second of a four-part series, entrepreneur Ben Nelson, who started a university which requires students to live and study in seven cities, talks about the need to overhaul higher education

1 Tuition fees at Minerva are much less than what other private universities charge. How are you able to keep them so low?

First, we have no campus, since our students live in residence halls (for which they pay room charges). Second, we don't offer any college athletics, which at some schools costs around US$10,000 (S$13,230) a year or more. Third, we don't offer professors tenure, which helps inflate professor salaries. Fourth, we don't subsidise professor research with undergraduate tuition.

We are committed to reducing the cost to attend a top-tier university programme. That is why we have eliminated anything that does not directly contribute to your educational experience.

2 You have a unique admission process where you do not look at admission tests like SAT or ACT. Neither do you ask for a personal essay. Why? 

Universities continue to rely on SAT scores and pre-written essays knowing full well that money can be, and is, used to buy expert training in taking SAT tests as well as having someone write the essays for you.

Performance on entrance exams like SAT - as much as 200 points - can be attributed to your wealth.

It's no surprise, then, that in a traditional Ivy League university, 50 per cent of the student body comes from the top 1 per cent wealthiest households in the world. And they are shocked that they have such a lopsided student body.

At Minerva, about 5 per cent of our student body comes from the top 1 per cent wealthiest households in the world. It's not because we try to find non-wealthy students. It's because we focus only on merit. We have our own set of assessments, set of challenges that students complete, including an oral and written on-camera interview.

And one of the nice things about the challenges is that our students usually have no idea why we are asking what we are asking. So, there's no way to game it.

The idea is we really try to get to the core of the individual and their capacities.

3How is the seminar-style teaching live online by your faculty better than the teaching done at any university? 

There are no lectures at Minerva. Classes are seminars of 20 students or fewer, conducted in real time via the platform.

 

When class is on, the professor has a direct video feed of all of the student faces in his class. That means as a student you have to pay attention.

The platform also measures how much a student participates in the discussion. So if one student talks very little and another an average amount, and a third talks too much, I as a professor will see you as green, the second student as yellow and the third person as red. So, I am going to call on you next.

The platform also facilitates numerous rapid mode changes, including moving from full group discussion to smaller breakout groups, collaborative document-sharing and editing.

4What makes the Minerva curriculum distinctive? 

It is the only university programme in the world that systematically applies principles from the science of learning not only to how we teach students, but to what we teach.

The single most important thing is that they actually get an education. You do not get an education in a traditional university. You get information, you may learn a subject. But an education requires a structured, deliberate programme that develops the individual mind.

At Minerva, the entire first year is spent studying 100 separate habits of mind and foundational concepts that together make up the capacities of critical thinking, creative thinking, effective interactions and effective communications.

It enables them to look at a problem, break it down, take those component parts, reassemble them and think about a creative solution.

And then we spend the next three years taking these elements and applying them to a broad set of fields that the student initially chooses, then to a specific intersection of two or three different fields, eventually to an area of individualised pursuit they spend their fourth year pursuing.

5 Your students move to a new city each year. Surely, that's a logistical nightmare for your university staff? What's the idea behind that?

You're right, it would be much easier to have them stay in San Francisco.

But we are trying to educate leaders in a variety of fields, in a global context. That is what the curriculum is designed for. In fact, if you look at what every top-tier university purports to be doing, they are supposed to be educating the people who will create or invent or run the major institutions of society. And so, who do you want running your institutions?

Those people who have been sequestered away from society, and have gotten this kind of approximation of the real world, and then go off? Or those that in this critical age where they still have brain plasticity and are still getting to understand how things work, are not sheltered from society but thrown right into it?

We also believe that experiential education has to be experienced. It's one thing to take a class on cultural differences. It's a lot better to go to India and try to hail a taxi and be respectful of the person who was there before you, or stand in line for the train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong. That is how you learn the way the world works.

But think of the kind of graduate that such experiences will nurture - a student that has lived in seven different countries will be better prepared than a student that lives four years in a campus in the woods of New Hampshire, right?

As for ensuring they take their studies seriously when they are abroad, that's easy. Attendance and preparation for Minerva classes is mandatory. If a student shows up unprepared to class, it counts as an absence and after a few absences, the student is withdrawn.

Lastly, we integrate the city into the students' education. Every course has assignments that take advantage of the city where the student is located. We engage local organisations that work with students on long-term projects from governments to non-profits to businesses.

6 You make rather sweeping statements such as having created the most effective university in the history of the world. What makes you think that?

I know that sounds like an outrageous statement but the facts are there. Here's proof that further confirms that Minerva is delivering unparalleled student learning outcomes. This past year, Minerva administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), a standardised test that assesses critical thinking, problem solving and written expression, to assess what our students learnt during a single academic year.

 

In fall 2016, Minerva freshmen performed in the 95th percentile compared to freshmen at other schools. That same group, when compared to college seniors, performed at the 78th percentile as incoming freshmen.

Then, by spring 2017, just eight months later, those same Minerva freshmen performed at the 99th percentile when compared to the seniors at all the other institutions.

But more than that: Minerva was ranked No.1 of all schools that administered the test. The average score of our students at the end of their freshman spring term was higher than the scores of senior graduating classes at every other university and college that administered the test.

These results demonstrate that the learning-centric methodology we created delivers on its promise; we have dramatically improved the way students learn to think.

Additionally, our students after one year go on internships and they are able to do the kinds of jobs in the workplace that third-year Ivy League students would struggle to do. So they perform at a level that is substantially higher than any of their peers. We have first-or second-year students at an investment bank consulting firms at hedge funds, at start-ups, corporations and in non-profits.

7 Do you think Minerva will change the world?

Imagine if a new medicine was developed that cures a disease at a fraction of the time and cost that traditional medications do and does so across the socio-economic spectrum. Would it be acceptable for doctors to continue to prescribe the older medication? Education is as, if not more, important - it is the foundation at the early part of someone's life of their future. Universities must respond to Minerva, either by adopting our system or, ideally, by coming up with something that's even better that we can adopt.


Students do not get an education in a traditional university, proclaims Mr Ben Nelson, who founded a new type of college from scratch in San Francisco, California, that aims to make sure they do.

"You get information, you may learn a subject. But you don't get an education," the brash 43-year-old entrepreneur tells The Straits Times in an interview. He runs the accredited university, founded in 2012, from the ninth floor of the school's headquarters in a trendy locale where neighbours include Twitter, Spotify and Uber.

Looking at the application numbers to the university, formed as a joint project between the Minerva Project and the accredited Keck Graduate Institute, there are many jumping at the chance to experience his alternative.

Last year, for its fourth round of admissions, Minerva received just over 20,000 applications and in the end, took in 385 students. That acceptance rate, at 1.9 per cent, is lower than at any schools in the Ivy League or Stanford.

However, the university, which charges US$13,000 (S$17,200) a year in tuition fees, vastly differs from the prestigious Ivy League universities.

Take the admissions process. Mr Nelson believes the traditional admissions process measures income, rather than aptitude and effort.

"Our application does not expose anything about the student that indicates their wealth," says Mr Nelson. Minerva does not ask for information about an applicant's parents or siblings, and does not accept the SAT or ACT college admission test results.

  • About Ben Nelson

  • The man behind Minerva Project is no stranger to disruption.

    Mr Ben Nelson, 43, is Minerva's founder, chairman and chief executive officer.

    But before that, he created a company that became the world's largest publishing service - the photo-sharing site Snapfish.

    He was there for more than 10 years, right from when it was just a start-up, and was its CEO for five years to 2010. During that time, Snapfish was sold to Hewlett Packard for a snappy US$300 million (S$398 million).

    And before that, he was already thinking outside the square, being president and CEO of Community Ventures, a network of locally branded portals for American communities.

    Earlier, he attended the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, obtaining a BS in Economics. Already, Mr Nelson showed his disruptive side, creating a blueprint for curricular reform in his first year of school.

"Two hundred points on your SAT can be directly attributed to your wealth," Mr Nelson says.

There is no pre-written college admissions essay, which Mr Nelson says is often coached.

And extracurricular activities like having gone to a Third World country to build homes for the poor do not impress Minerva officials. "We're not particularly impressed if mum and dad put you on a plane to Honduras and had you build a house for someone," says Mr Nelson.

Instead, Minerva has its own set of assessments and essays that are done live on camera and recorded. This includes an oral and a written interview.

Classes also differ from those at a traditional college. For one thing, students do not stay in one place during their four-year education. They spend time in up to seven residence houses in San Francisco, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul, Hyderabad, Taipei and London.

About 80 per cent of Minerva's students come from outside the US.

The interdisciplinary core curriculum, focusing on critical thinking and communications skills, is delivered to students through real-time video seminars by their professors, using a platform that tracks and analyses student strengths and weaknesses.

At the end of four years, students earn bachelor's degrees in arts and humanities, computational sciences, natural sciences, social sciences and business.

The proof of the pudding will only be in the graduate employment outcomes of Minerva's first cohort of 110 students who will go out into the workplace or to further education next year.

But last year, Minerva shone when its second-year cohort of students took the CLA+ test, a measure of problem-solving, scientific and quantitative reasoning, writing effectiveness, critical reading and argument critique.

They were tested at the beginning of the course and again eight months later, by which point their average score "was higher than the scores of senior graduating classes at every other university and college that administered the test", according to the company.

"These results demonstrate that the learning-centric methodology we created delivers on its promise," says Mr Nelson, adding that "nothing is more important for the sake of the world than nurturing a more effective, systemic approach to higher education".

"Higher education is at the core of fixing all of the world's problems - those with college degrees are the people who are tasked with solving the issues that we face as humans," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2018, with the headline 'Recreating universities'. Print Edition | Subscribe