Inside Minerva Schools, the education startup partnered with KGI trying to reinvent higher education

A group of students stands in a lobby, with a central woman smiling at a man to her right who is laughing.
Minerva Schools students Kayla Cohen ’19 and Yoel Ferdman ’19 spent their first year living in San Francisco and the next three at six different locations throughout the world. (Courtesy: Anastasiia Sapon)

Bianca Banks’ college application didn’t prompt her to submit test scores or list her extracurricular activities. Instead, it asked a more peculiar question.

In eight minutes, how many possible uses of ice could she list?

Banks is now a junior at Minerva Schools, a non-traditional school currently operating under the auspices of the 7Cs’ Keck Graduate Institute.

Minerva boasts a stripped-down college experience — no sports teams, gym, library, dining hall or even classrooms — just residence halls in seven locations throughout the world, according to the Minerva website

Students spend their first year living in San Francisco and the next three at six different locations throughout the world, all in Minerva-run housing: Seoul, South Korea; Hyderabad, India; Berlin, Germany; Buenos Aires, Argentina; London, U.K.; and Taipei, Taiwan. 

But even after relocating to campuses across the globe, students take all of their classes in the same place: in front of a computer. 

All students at Minerva, whose first class graduated just last year, according to Minerva’s website, complete all of their classes online using a proprietary video teaching software — which the for-profit startup, the Minerva Project, is monetizing and selling to other institutions.

“You either love it or you don’t like it at all,” said one first-year student, Sherry Lim.

The ‘perfect university’

“We are effectively building a perfect university,” Minerva’s founder and CEO Ben Nelson said in a 2014 VentureBeat article. 

Nelson, a former executive at photo service Snapfish with no prior professional education experience, according to The Atlantic, has not held back his disdain for the existing institutional educational system, citing high prices and the availability of free, easy online learning.

“You are out $20,000 to study Spanish at one of these universities,” Nelson told VentureBeat. “For that price, you could live in the Ritz Carlton in Madrid and hire a private tutor for a month.”

After selling Snapfish for $300 million to Hewlett-Packard in 2005, Nelson used some of the money to fund the Minerva Project, according to The Atlantic.

“We just feel we don’t have any moral standing to charge you thousands of dollars for learning what you can learn for free,” Nelson said in the Wall Street Journal in 2013. 

Minerva’s few facilities keep tuition relatively affordable: just $26,950 for the 2020-2021 academic year, according to the website. The school also gets funding from the Minerva Project, which raised $120 million in venture capital money as of April 2019, according to Forbes

Nelson said in a 2019 EdSurge article that the school would soon be operating independently. 

Minerva offers only five majors: arts and humanities, computational sciences, natural sciences, social sciences and business, according to its website. All students take the same four, year-long classes their first year. And the school also doesn’t offer any language classes before sending its students abroad.

“There are no superfluous electives or ‘hobby’ classes,” its website says.

Lim, who is originally from South Korea, said the curriculum came as a shock at first, coming from a traditional educational background.

“It was super hard for me to adjust,” she said. “I felt lost in the beginning.”

“You either love it or you don’t like it at all.”

– Sherry Lim

An alternative admissions approach

Minerva’s 1.2 percent acceptance rate makes it more selective than Harvard University, Nelson told EdSurge

Last year, Minerva received over 23,000 applications, and 67 percent of admitted students ended up enrolling, according to spokesperson Junko Green.

There are 631 total students at Minerva this year, according to its website, over 78 percent of whom come from outside of the United States.

“Minerva does not have any admission quota or limits for each class. We admit every student that we believe is prepared to succeed in our program,” Green told TSL via email. 

Banks, who is originally from Hong Kong, chose Minerva because she saw flaws in traditional higher education — particularly the price. 

In the application process, Banks completed aptitude tests — which included the ice question — that gauged reading, writing and mathematical skills. Then she was given an online, timed interview where she was asked four questions. Minerva doesn’t require standardized tests. 

Questions included “What would you tell your family and friends if you got into Minerva?” and “What was the worst thing someone has ever done to you and how did you handle it?” according to Banks.

Lim said she was asked to complete spatial reasoning tests with puzzles and rotating figures, as well as answer what she would do if she was stuck on a mountain with arguing friends.

Minerva’s online class software

Minerva students may not ever meet their professors in real life.

They take all of their classes online with professors and students around the world, video-calling into small sections using the Forum, the college’s proprietary curricular software, according to Minerva’s website.

Classes are recorded and students’ faces are constantly visible for all their peers and professors, who rewatch classes to grade performance. The platform allows for polls, quizzes and other features that require constant, active engagement, according to an interview Nelson did with Xconomy

“You can barely blink without everybody knowing it. You can’t get up to get a glass of water without everybody knowing it,” Robin Goldberg, Minerva’s chief marketing officer, said in an Inside HigherEd article.

The Forum is not only an educational tool, but also a business. The Minerva Project began selling the software to other educational institutions, including UC Berkeley’s law school, in summer 2019, Green told TSL.

“Our intention has been to enable other institutions to join the revolution,” Nelson told Forbes. “For the first time you can deliver better-than-Ivy-League education at absurdly low cost.”

Some say the remote teaching model has its downsides.

“I think because everything is done online … regardless of the class size, you kind of do feel detached from the professors,” Lim said.  

However, Banks said she finds the platform “dynamic” and feels “close and comfortable” with her professors.

The international model can also create scheduling difficulties. Only 8 of the 48 spring courses offered for seniors studying in Taipei were between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., according to the Quest, which Banks said is “unacceptable.”

Social and residential life

“You can barely blink without everybody knowing it.”

– Robin Goldberg

Minerva’s lack of a campus can be both a positive and a negative, according to Lim.

“They tell us to use the city as your own campus. … You feel like you’re almost forced to go out in the city and engage with the city and with locals [to] make more meaningful connections,” she said. However, finding study spaces can be difficult, she added.

And Lim said she felt “jammed” in the San Francisco residence hall sometimes. “There really isn’t much personal space here,” she said. 

The different grades enrolled at Minerva, which are spread across the globe, also don’t interact much outside of some classes and cross-class clubs, Banks added.

“I feel more like a part-time student, traveling all these places but also getting my education,” Lim said. 

To try to bring its students together, Minerva has developed some unique traditions, like its annual feast in March in honor of Quinquatria, a Roman holiday dedicated to the goddess Minerva, according to Banks.

“The community is incredible … Being able to travel the world essentially with your friends is a lot of fun,” Banks said.

KGI’s involvement

Minerva is officially the fourth school at KGI, along with its life sciences, pharmaceutical and nascent medical schools, according to KGI’s website.

Minerva relies on KGI for its accreditation, so all major decisions at Minerva have to be approved by the KGI administration, including faculty hires and substantial policy changes, according to the Quest

Nelson, using the language of the tech startup world, said the school is in an “incubation” stage under KGI in an interview with Xconomy. “There is zero financial exchange with our academic partners for incubation,” he said.

KGI administrators have praised the partnership. 

“KGI is committed to educational innovation. From this perspective, we were drawn to the Minerva Schools at KGI’s distinctive approach to liberal arts education,” Steve Casper, dean of KGI’s Henry E. Riggs School of Applied Life Sciences said. “We also were drawn to the Minerva Schools’ world-class software.” 

Minerva also currently lets KGI use the Forum software at cost, Casper said, for classes for PhD students and postdoctoral students around the United States. KGI is also “developing online programs with corporate partners that will use the software.”

But Minerva is looking to sever its official relationship with KGI. It’s working towards independent accreditation, according to the Quest. KGI and Minerva’s arrangement for the Forum software will continue for a few years after the schools split, according to Casper.

Lim said Minerva is already mostly disconnected from the Claremont Colleges, but Lim and Banks are concerned about losing resources, such as online access to the Claremont Colleges Library, if and when the school and KGI officially part ways. 

“A fair amount of our readings [come] from there,” Banks said.

Casper said the schools have not yet reached a decision on library access after Minerva becomes independently accredited.

Before KGI, Pomona College was originally considering partnering with Minerva in spring 2013, but, according to politics professor Susan McWilliams, Pomona faculty “overwhelmingly rejected the possibility.” 

Minerva was “not representative of what we value at Pomona,” McWilliams said. 

“Much of what Minerva did in the name of liberal arts education was actually antithetical to liberal arts education in the true sense,” McWilliams added.

McWilliams said the faculty was mainly concerned by the lack of arts education and hands-on science classes, as well as the for-profit nature of the software platform. 

Green said via email that Minerva has strategic partnerships with schools and organizations in rotation cities allowing students to gain hand-on laboratory experience and participate in the arts, and that Minerva successfully placed students in internships where they can gain hands-on science experience.

While we facilitate beneficial opportunities for students, our goal is to deliver a 21st century liberal arts education where students learn critical skills and concepts that can be applied to any subject or field, focusing on highly transferable knowledge across disciplines,” Green said.

This article was last updated March 6, 2020 at 5:05 p.m.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Nelson makes all final admissions decisions. Admissions decisions are made by a committee including Nelson, but not Nelson personally, a Minerva spokesperson said. 
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