Sunday, April 15, 2012

Venture-Backed Enterprise Seeks to Satisfy Global Demand for an Elite Education, Online

Elite American universities maintain their prestige by turning away a huge percentage of applicants every year. And the education entrepreneur Ben Nelson sees an opportunity in this demand for top-flight education: He wants to reach talented students across the world and to build a new university that could remake the image of Ivy League education.

Mr. Nelson, founder of a start-up called the Minerva Project, believes the minuscule acceptance rates at prestigious institutions leave some college-bound students without a place where they can pursue a blue-ribbon degree. So his for-profit enterprise seeks to satisfy that demand by offering a rigorous online education to the brightest students around the world who slip through the cracks of highly selective admissions cycles.


The start-up, based in San Francisco, plans to do so by charging tuition rates “well under half” of those at traditional top-tier institutions, Mr. Nelson said. The new university is seeking accreditation, Mr. Nelson added, and will welcome its first class in 2014.


To create these advanced courses, Minerva will break down the role of professor into two distinct jobs instead of simply poaching faculty members from other universities. The company will award monetary prizes to “distinguished teachers among great research faculty,” Mr. Nelson said, who will team up with crews to videotape lectures and craft innovative courses when they are not teaching at their home institutions. (Mr. Nelson declined to elaborate on the size of the prizes.)

Minerva will then hire a second group of instructors to deliver the material. Mr. Nelson called them “preceptors,” who will typically be young graduates of doctoral programs—they will lead class discussions online, hold office hours, and grade assignments.


Minerva’s attempt to disrupt elite higher education is a “bold move,” according to Michael B. Horn, executive director for education at Innosight Institute, a think tank focused on innovation. “It’s kind of breathtaking in its ambition, and it’s exciting to see what will happen,” he said


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