Minerva Project: The online university challenging the Ivy League

Ben Nelson, former CEO of Snapfish and former chairman of RedBeacon, is looking to shift the paradigm of elite higher education with his latest endeavor, the Minerva Project. An online university seeking to rival Harvard, Yale and other universities of their ilk, the Minerva Project has already attracted a significant amount of interest – and scrutiny – for its novel approach to the business of learning.

In an interview with PandoDaily today, Nelson says that the idea was inspired in part by his time at the Wharton School and in part by a growing worldwide demand for access to quality higher education. “Universities have frozen their class sizes,” said Nelson, “and there is a market that is begging for a service that is in increasingly short supply.”

In a TEDx talk Nelson gave last December, Nelson quoted Harvard as allowing that 85 percent of all applicants to the school are “fully qualified” to gain admission. Yet, Nelson says, Harvard – whose acceptance rate this past admissions season peaked at a record low of 5.9 percent — and schools like it are restricting access mostly based on factors other than the student’s own qualifications.

Naturally, scalability is an issue, and considerations such as infrastructure demands certainly come into play, Nelson says. But, he goes on, so too do athletics, so-called family ‘legacies,’ and other desirable admissions elements such as the geographic diversity the student may represent.

It’s important to understand why universities give preference for who they give preference to. They have a limit. Harvard has a 5.9 percent acceptance rate. No one can make a straight-faced argument that those students are objectively better than anyone else. It becomes random at that point, and you’d rather curate a class that has a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences, and that’s the right thing to do…But the system can’t sustain the model we’re pursuing. Yale just announced they’re going to increase the size of their class by 250 kids and it will cost them half a billion dollars to do that. How can you blame them? But based on demand, in the past 20 years, Yale should have increased by 25,000.

What Nelson envisions is an institution with no capacity limits that offers high-quality instruction from the top minds in academia to the best students the world over by harnessing the ubiquity of Internet access. It’s a bold endeavor, and of course, Nelson isn’t the first to take on the marketplace of online education, or even of elite online education. Both online campuses affiliated with brick-and-mortar institutions and standalone programs abound, and newer models are popping up every day; tenured Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun left his post in February to set up Udacity, a for-profit school offering free college-level classes on topics like cryptography and Web engineering.

Yet Nelson, who has left the corporate world to focus on the project, is confident that Minerva will find its place among the top academic institutions, and he doesn’t seem to be the only one. The 36-year-old entrepreneur announced this week that he has secured $25 million in seed money from Benchmark Capital, a Menlo Park-based venture capital firm.  It is the largest such investment in the 17-year history of the firm, which includes the early-stage funding of eBayTwitter and several other high-profile tech startups.  In addition, Nelson has received attention from a number of professors and academic heavyweights; former Harvard President Larry Summers asked to be chair of the advisory board, which also includes former Wharton Dean Patrick Harker, former New School President Bob Kerrey, and former Carnegie Foundation President Lee Schulman.

The Minerva Project plans to begin accepting its first class in 2014. To learn more about the project, visit its site here.

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