The Future Isn’t Here Yet

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

I read an interesting piece in The Atlantic titled “The Future of College?” about the Minerva Project, a new higher education offering by multi-millionaire Ben Nelson. Minerva has just started with their introductory class: 33 students. It does not sound like much, but it is a start.

I do not know much about Minerva and I cannot find much information online. I openly invite Ben Nelson to an online dialogue so he can explain more clearly, because I have more than a little consternation about what they are purporting to do. If that happens, we will post live and loud.

The prefix is thus: I am very liberal on the future of higher education. I believe higher education should change dramatically; at least part of higher education. I think some sectors or pieces of higher education will remain mostly the same because that is what legacy will legislate and require. Those who grow up in private schools and matriculate to the brass ring of selective colleges will want those things for their children. They are, arguably, the brightest students in the world because they have been brought up that way with genetics to match. And while some of us loath these types from time to time, the rest of the world salivates at those opportunities and wish, to some point, it could have been us. We all suffer from schadenfreude to some degree.

The point being is that we need revolutionary alterations in how we “do” higher education. It needs to be better. It needs to be cheaper. Mostly, it needs to be more inline with societal, economic, and global needs. Our current system is largely antiquated and out of sync. Ben Nelson gets that. Community colleges are more in line with societal necessities than four-year public and private institutions. Those lamenting the for-profit colleges should note that those institutions teach the actual skills that society requires; perhaps at a too-costly basis, as many would argue, but they teach JIT skills. In truth, all institutions are “for-profit,” with the exception that some receive public subsidies (another dialogue for another week).

In the end, we will see new ideas come and go; we will see old ideas return and gloriously and then leave again; and, of course, we will see some ideas evolve and change the world.

I don’t see Minerva being one of these.

The idea of Minerva is that they will become the most selective institution on earth. That’s not their plan; that’s just their reality. This year, they provided their 33 students with a $10,000 tuition scholarship (full ride) and living costs in San Francisco (not cheap). Next year, according to The Atlantic, they hope for 300 students who will pay $28,000/year, complete with room and board, to learn in cities such as Berlin and Buenos Aires. Sounds fun. Read more on their website for additional information.

In the end, I don’t see Minerva as scalable. The Minerva Project looks much more like Reed College; where doctrine means little but they aim to expand the mind. If you know any Reed students, the mind was expanded through things beyond what was taught in classes. I digress.

I found some extracts from Minerva particularly interesting, including language on their admissions guidelines, which state that “all qualified students will be invited to attend. Because Minerva does not have the capacity constraints of other highly selective schools, we will offer admission to all who meet our rigorous standards.”

Minerva perhaps doesn’t have capacity constraints, but they do have financial constraints. This idea of scalability at a doubling status doesn’t compute. Someone, somewhere, has to subsidize the cost, because $28k a year won’t cover the basic costs for an “education.” Unless, of course, it is a very different education that they provide. And that is their catch. They want it to be that different.

But will the workforce sector want what they prepare? A separate article on Fast Company last week talked about how CEOs wanted more liberal arts graduates. We all do. I do. But I want skills that I can use and manipulate and mold. I, like other employers, want malleable workers. I want them to have skill sets that morph as our work does. I want employees that can think and create; but still, in the end, I need employees that I have some control over that I know work in the same “real” world that I do. Not in one postulated through an illiberal education that does not function in the world of business, industry, or education. It must be real. Balanced.

Minerva may produce that type of worker. But it will not produce it en masse, and it will not produce it in a systematic way because of the diversity of their approach. Diversity is a wonderful thing, until one wants to scale it to the millions. Then diversity runs into a troubled affair. You must have guidelines. You must have parameters. We still need rules; we still need articulations.

In an online video on the Minerva website, Ben Nelson says this:

“Our goal is two-fold: first and foremost, it is to create the world’s leading university. To be the place of choice for the smartest, hardest working students across the world.” He continues that they want to “lead the rest of higher education to a new concept of curriculum.”

So, you want to revolutionize higher education, but you are going to do it with the most select process ever invented in higher education? I remain lost in the philosophical foundation of what they are trying to do. They want to change higher education, but they want to do it with the tiniest fraction/faction of the population. Lost.

Selective, four-year institutions in the US account for less than 20 percent of enrollment. And that includes graduate work, where these institutions excel. I am not sure how they factor in the domain of “everyone else.” It does not compute. I know Mr. Nelson must be a brilliant guy. He has, by my calculation, at a working life half of mine, earned 1,500 times what I have earned. I think he has earned more, but my education suggests numerical conservatism. I learned this lesson via my 30+ courses in mathematics theory and practice at the University of Manitoba. I apparently didn’t learn enough, however, to earn 1,500 times more than I did to this point in life. Digression.

Stephen Kosslyn, the Founding Dean of Arts & Sciences at Minerva, says that Minerva hopes to provide:

“what the students need to succeed after they graduate… many of them [institutions] have this view that they should be teaching skills that are relevant for the jobs that exist today. We don’t do that. We teach habits of mind and foundational concepts that allow students to keep learning the rest of their lives. Allow them to adapt and succeed in jobs that don’t even exist today.”

Again, go back to my third paragraph. I want people to break to the box; do things differently. But if you talk to a lot of liberal arts presidents and other stakeholders, many of them think they are doing the same thing. Teaching lifelong skills. I am not so sure that making your students live in your dorms and learning off Coursera and other online venues will meet this objective.

The Atlantic says this:

“If Minerva fails, it will lay off its staff and sell its office furniture and never be heard from again. If it succeeds, it could inspire a legion of entrepreneurs, and a whole category of legacy institutions might have to liquidate. One imagines tumbleweeds rolling through abandoned quads and wrecking balls smashing through the windows of classrooms left empty by students who have plugged into new online platforms.”

No joke. That is what they wrote (I think some of the liberal arts-educated writers may do better by reducing their use of hyperbole).

We educate 20-plus million people in the US alone. There are hundreds of millions of postsecondary students around the globe, which leads us to the issue of the overstated nature of higher education. Perhaps we—higher education—are not as relevant as we think we are. Perhaps the world, in part, would be just as well served if we educated our youth better, especially in third-world nations which typically educate—relatively poorly—kids up to the ages of 12 or 13, and rarely educate women past that point. Perhaps if we changed skill set development around the world and in the US we would not need as much higher education?

But we fault in our need to self perpetuate current systems, policies, and practices, even when they do not promote societal needs in the medium and long terms.

I agree and encourage Mr. Nelson to keep dreaming and let his vision evolve. I am a bit lost to see how his vision will possibly work or better our society. But, to be fair, I don’t think the current system is serving our society so well, either. Maybe he is right. Perhaps not.

Let’s have that conversation.

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