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Why Silicon Valley wants to change the way we do college

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The U.S. four-year higher education system has gone largely unchanged for generations: There is a core (often liberal-arts based) curriculum followed by a deeper focus in a major or concentration. Students remain on or near campus for their tenure at the school with the possibility of a semester abroad.

Ben Nelson, the former President of Snapfish and CEO of Community Ventures, wants to change all that. In the fall of 2014 he will matriculate the first class of students at The Minerva Schools at KGI (in partnership with the Keck Graduate Institute of the Claremont University Consortium), which he founded.

“We’re trying to create a newer, higher-quality definition of education that has broader access to students and is delivered at a much lower cost,” says Nelson. Minerva plans on charging around $10,000 per year.

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"Students these days are paying for things that are not cognizant of technological advances so, for example, students all over the country are paying thousands of dollars to get certified for knowing psych 101 or basic calculus or basic econ, things that, quite frankly, they should be paying $20 or $30 on a piece of software to certify that they know,” says Nelson. “But the structure of universities is such that they’re built on an older model and every once in a while universities need to be refreshed and that’s what Minerva’s trying to do.”

The school will be based online with students taking first-year classes while living in San Francisco and then spending each subsequent semester in a different country. Programs will be available in Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, London, Cape Town, Mumbai, Sydney and Berlin.

“Students will live in the great cultural, political and economic capitals in the world,” says Nelson. Although classes will be virtual, the school hopes to foster a sense of community by having students live together in tightly-knit groups and participating in extracurricular activities together.

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The school has attracted big names and vast sums of money. Stephen Kosslyn, the former dean of social sciences at Harvard University, will take on the role of founding academic dean; former Senator Bob Kerrey (who was head of The New School) is in charge of research and scholarship. Larry Summers, the former Harvard president, was until recently the chair of Minerva's advisory board (his two-year term expired). The school has also received $25 million in venture capital from Benchmark Capital and hopes to become profitable shortly.

Professors at Minerva will work on three-year contracts with no tenure. They will be paid based on how well students do in the class. So far, professors include Eric Bonabeau, one of the world's leading experts in complex systems and adaptive problem solving, who will act as dean of computational sciences; Daniel J. Levitin, an author and the director of the Labratory for Music Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, who will be dean of arts & humanities and James Sterling, a founding faculty member of the Keck Graduate School, will be dean of natural sciences.

While the school is poaching Harvard's top administrators, they also hope to poach some of their potential students. Minerva will have an aggressive new application process where each student will be required to undergo a series of interviews and exams. SATs will not be accepted.

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The school is working on partnerships with the top tech companies in Silicon Valley so  graduates can be accelerated into high-power positions upon graduation. According to Nelson, “When you talk to employers, they’re very eager to hire Minerva graduates based on the curriculum and the student experience that we provide.” 

The first class of Minerva students will be small, around 15 to 20, and will complete their education for free.

But will the school have trouble recruiting future classes?

Small, alternative schools that recruit top students have succeeded in the past. The Franklin Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts was founded in 1997, has just 315 students and was selected as one of Newsweek’s “25 New Ivies.” Deep Springs is a two-year school with 26 students in the remote desert area of Inyo, California (about 45 miles from the nearest town). Most students go on to complete their educations at top Ivy League schools and often become Rhodes or Truman scholars.

Alternative higher-education programs can certainly succeed, but Minerva’s plans for online-only education leave some skeptical. It remains to be seen whether the school will be able to attract top recruits and produce world leaders like Nelson says.

If it does succeed, it will certainly change the way America thinks about the college system.

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