| April 4
April 4 Former Silicon Valley CEO Ben Nelson has
two years and $25 million to transform higher education.
The 36-year-old executive, who has run the Snapfish
photo-sharing website and the Redbeacon home-maintenance site,
said this week that he had landed $25 million in seed money for
an audacious new venture: creating an elite global university
online. From scratch.
The Internet already teems with online universities, both
private and public, respected and questionable. But Nelson is
betting the world could use a brand-new model. He is not alone;
several other high-profile educational entrepreneurs have
launched innovative ventures this year in hopes of harnessing
the Internet to upend the ivory towers.
At a time of immense concern in the United States about the
soaring cost of college -- and growing doubts about how much
students actually learn on campus -- the ventures are attracting
considerable interest from students, investors and education
"The only way we're going to find out what works is to do
it, rather than sit there opining," said David Wiley, an
associate professor of instructional psychology and technology
at Brigham Young University. "Bring it on."
Nelson wants to attract top students from around the world
to his Minerva Project, a for-profit undergraduate college that
will offer rigorous courses designed by academic superstars. But
Minerva will also require students to teach themselves
everything from Spanish to macroeconomics.
Nelson has not yet set tuition, but he plans to charge the
first class, entering in the fall of 2014, significantly less
than $20,000 a year for an education that he says will rival the
"We want to deliver the world's greatest education," he
Nelson, who has left his corporate jobs to focus on Minerva
full time, has lined up some big names for his advisory board,
starting with Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard
University and former U.S. Treasury Secretary.
Benchmark Capital, which focuses on start-up online
entrepreneurs, provided the $25 million -- the largest seed
money investment in the venture capital firm's 17-year history.
General partner Kevin Harvey called Minerva "a transformational
Many long-standing online colleges mimic the structure, and
sometimes approach the cost, of traditional universities. But
some have high dropout and low graduation rates, and employers
do not always value their degrees.
Online branches of state schools and other brick-and-mortar
universities tend to have more credibility in the marketplace,
but may offer only a few degree programs.
A few online schools have gained widespread praise for
creating new models of higher education. Western Governors
University, founded in the late 1990s, has grown rapidly to
30,000 students nationwide. It allows them to get credits
without taking a full course if they prove, through exams,
essays or other projects, that they have mastered the given
Other high-profile ventures are still in the formative
After attracting 160,000 students from 190 countries to an
artificial intelligence class he gave online, computer scientist
Sebastian Thrun left his tenured post at Stanford University
earlier this year to set up Udacity, a for-profit school
offering free college-level classes on topics such as
cryptography and Web engineering.
Udacity received seed money from venture capital firm
Charles River Ventures, but Thrun has not yet explained how he
will make a profit. Still, the outsized success of his
artificial intelligence class has raised the education world's
expectations for his school.
Another approach comes from New Charter University, whose
board of trustees includes a former president of the University
of Maryland's online college and a current academic vice provost
at the University of California.
New Charter offers several online business degree programs
with a novel tuition structure. Students pay $199 a month for as
many classes as they want to take. They can also audit classes
for free, paying only when they are ready to take an exam and
earn course credit.
TRIAL AND ERROR
Education experts caution that there is no proof that any of
these online colleges will succeed academically.
"What the quality is like is yet to be seen," said Brigham
Young associate professor Wiley. "There's a lot of theorizing
about what would be effective, but there's been very little
trial and error."
The experiments come at a time of deep unease about the
traditional higher education model.
Community colleges, the usual entry point for low-income
students, are so packed that some hold classes literally around
the clock. The annual cost of tuition plus student fees at
public universities has more than tripled in the last three
decades, even after accounting for inflation.
The rise at private colleges has been nearly as steep,
according to the College Board. Ivy League colleges typically
top $50,000 a year for tuition, room and board.
At the same time, the value of the American college
experience has come into question. In the book "Academically
Adrift," two educators tracked more than 2,000 undergraduates at
24 colleges and found that nearly half had shown no significant
improvement on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning,
and writing after their first two years on campus.
The National Survey of Student Engagement found that on
average, college students reported studying only 15 hours a
week. Just slightly more than half of all students who enter a
four-year college will actually graduate within six years,
federal data shows.
Given such figures, it is not surprising that entrepreneurs
are trying to develop new models of higher learning at lower
costs, said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and
history at New York University.
"It's a wakeup call for the rest of us," he said. "I am
curious. And skeptical."
Nearly a third of all college students report taking at
least one course online, but Zimmerman said there had been
little rigorous research on the efficacy of an all-online
education. While such programs may offer some student services,
he said, they cannot provide the support that most college
campuses offer for people with learning disabilities, mental
illnesses and other special needs.
There are also practical questions, such as how to prevent
cheating when professors do not ever meet students face-to-face.
For all the challenges, Nelson is ebullient about the
Minerva Project's potential.
He plans to recruit top students from around the world, many
of whom are shut out of higher education either because of the
cost or because the few universities in their country are
over-crowded. "The majority of students won't be from the U.S.,"
Once enrolled, students will log in to watch weekly lectures
recorded by big-name professors. But they will also join
small-group discussions led by skilled teachers who will be able
to pause the lectures to take questions or spark an online
discussion by keyboard and video chat.
Nelson says Minerva will only offer upper-level courses. "If
you don't take Econ 101 on your own," he said, "you're going to
flunk our economic policy class."
To foster a sense of community, Nelson plans to open dorms
around the world and encourage students to set up camp in a
different country each semester: Sophomore year in Brazil and
Japan, perhaps, and junior year in Jordan and France. He pegs
room and board costs at about $10,000 a year, including travel.
So far, this is all just talk. Minerva has not announced any
contracts with professors, sought accreditation for any degree
program or even published a tentative course catalog. The
rudimentary website, minervaproject.com, urges interested
students to fill out an online form, but there is no formal
But even with so much unsettled, the idea appeals to former
Nebraska Governor Bob Kerrey, who is now running for his old
U.S. Senate seat. Kerrey, the former president of The New
School, a liberal arts university in New York, joined the
Minerva Project's advisory board for a simple reason: The
proposed university seemed to him exactly the kind of place
where he would like to enroll his son someday.
"I don't think I will be the only parent who will listen to
the pitch and say, 'That's for me,'" Kerrey said.