Online university start-up to rival Ivy League
Former Silicon Valley CEO Ben Nelson has two years and US$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, 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 tertiary education – and growing doubts about how much students actually learn on university campuses – the ventures are attracting considerable interest from students, investors and education experts.
“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 US$20,000 a year for an education that he says will rival the Ivy League.
“We want to deliver the world’s greatest education,” he said.
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 US Treasury Secretary.
Benchmark Capital, which focuses on start-up online entrepreneurs, provided the US$25 million – the largest seed money investment in the venture capital firm’s 17-year history. General partner Kevin Harvey called Minerva “a transformational idea.”
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 programmes.