Looking at the homepage for Minerva Schools at KGI, where I am greeted by a host of highly photogenic multi-cultural 18-year olds joyously ascending a hill in San Francisco, ready to “change themselves as they endeavor to change the world,” I feel a slight chill. Having spent a semester surveying the MOOC landscape, imagining the possibilities of free, open, online resources to promote equity and access to information, there is something slightly unsettling about Minerva’s overt elitism. Granted, the elitism is flipped from the usual entirely: Minerva seeks out the best and brightest among those who cannot afford, or would rather not pay, the Ivy League fee.
The school then offers a fusion of study abroad and online teaching as an alternative to a traditional private undergraduate education. The admissions page calls for “future innovators and leaders” to engage in a “unique,” “global” experience. The ideal student seems to be some kind of international wunderkind/self-starter who speaks perfect English. (According to the picture, the student must also wear enough scarves be deemed a “citizen of the world.” But I digress.)
A recent NYT article states that the school “calls itself the first elite American university to open in 100 years.” The site asserts its quality by noting the 2,000+ applicants vs. the tiny number selected. It almost seems that– as arguably is the case in much of the college admissions space, and elsewhere– sheer selectivity is enough of a reason to think it’s good. The school poses occupies an odd, possibly emerging space in online education: an elite, closed, for-profit online school. Fulbrights and other fellowships that enable a high-prestige version of a year abroad already exist, but the online education aspect of Minerva brings in what might usually be seen as a low-prestige aspect into the equation, leveraged mainly by branding and selectivity. Founder Ben Nelson, a business man with a pedigreed background and former president of a major photo site acquired by Hewlitt Packard for big bucks, has created what a T509 visitor called a glorified “semester-at-sea” (and I agree), but what may very well be what he wants: a disruptive alternative to a Harvard experience.