What in the world is Minerva Schools?


Well, perhaps the better question is “Where in the world is Minerva Schools?”

“Why did I leave established, elite universities, like Harvard and Stanford, for a radically new concept in higher education? The answer is simple: I wanted to help build something better.”

Stephen M. Kosslyn, Ph.D. | Founding Dean

What’s Minerva? Why, I’m glad you asked. Minerva is a brand new thought experiment in higher education. It’s a non-profit liberal arts college with an innovative classroom design, spectacular curriculum, dedicated administration, powerful and motivated student body, and accessible admissions and attendance. They’ve redesigned the college experience; there is arguably no other school in the world like Minerva, and judging by the number of applications this year (some 16,000) and expos in news sources like The New York Times, The Atlantic, and PBS, people are starting to figure it out.



Structure and design

Most remarkably different from other universities, Minerva students (known as Minervans) will live in 7 cities around the world during their four years of undergrad. The first year is spent in San Francisco, while every semester after that brings a new location: Berlin, Germany; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Seoul, South Korea; Bangalore, India; Istanbul, Turkey; and London, England. They travel in “cohorts,” their graduating class. For two semesters, they’ll live with another cohort in the same cities.

The other two big differences are the classroom style and curriculum. Minerva uses a “radical flipped classroom” approach to education: homework and lectures have been moved to before class, leaving class time free for discussion and active learning. Students prepare for class on their own or with peers outside of class time with specific material––reading newspaper articles, watching TED talks, documentaries, research papers, etc. During class time, all students participate in a discussion of the topic, guided by their professor. Lectures are banned. And instead of just “vomiting facts” at us, Minerva teaches us how to think. Check out this video of the Active Learning Form and the learning experience! (I highly recommend it!)

But seriously. After watching that video, I bet you’re at least a little jealous of these students.

Minerva offers a unique undergraduate education. The intensive four-year experience is deliberately designed to enhance your intellectual growth and prepare you for success in today’s rapidly changing global context.
Minerva prides itself on intellectual development and experiential learning. Challenging curriculum, small class sizes (19 or less), radically flipped classrooms (see infographic), civic engagement–this school has got it all. The best part? It’s really got it. As Minerva points out, a lot of schools promise these things, but they rarely deliver. Usually, a few motivated students will push to take advantage of those things. They organize service events. Get a nationally competitive scholarship. Become successful in their career. But at Minerva, everybody participates in these experiences and reaps these benefits; 100% engagement is systematically implemented for the entire student body. (Of course, this is just based on what I’ve learned so far by reading their website, the news articles online, hearing first hand from the founders and administrators, and seeing the impressive list of internships the current students will have for this summer; and it’s based on what I’ve observed at the University of Arizona and heard about other colleges from similar sources.)
Minerva focuses on teaching broad skill sets that can be applied effectively across disciplines.
critical thinking
e.g. evaluating claims, weighing decisions
creative thinking
e.g. solving problems, developing ideas
effective communication
e.g. writing, speaking, presenting
effective interaction
e.g. negotiating, working on teams

I can only tell you so much, as somebody who hasn’t even started there yet. For more on what they teach, how they teach it (the science of it), and why, visit this page on their website.

For more on the curriculum, visit their website and poke around.  : )

Minerva is also designed to be accessible both in the admissions process and financially. They take applications from around the world for no fee, accept no SAT or ACT scores, and they claim they accept every application that reaches their set standard. Tuition at Minerva is only $10,000 a year––combined with the mandatory housing fee of $11,000 makes it $21,000 a year. Compare that with other averages and Minerva is cheap. Once you add in their estimated living expenses, Minerva costs around $30,000 a year. My estimate for myself including airfare is about $29,000 a year.

Note:  Minerva is only a few years old––I’m joining their second graduating class (third class of admitted students). Because of their new-ness and how much they value including the kids they teach, Minerva is still shaping itself with the aid of its students. And due to the degree of separation between each cohort (class of students) through space, traditions and clubs (“MiCos,” or Minerva Communities) with change as new cohorts change cities and build their own school community.



Living experience

Students live in residence halls… around the world. O.O

Ben Nelson, founder of Minerva, probably says it best. Here’s the shortened version of an email I received after my acceptance.

“The array of cities was intentionally selected to expose you to diverse regions, languages, customs, and historical contexts. From San Francisco to Buenos Aires to London, the criteria we used to qualify each location included safety, cost and quality of living, access to public transit, climate, population density, and global stature. Each year offers a new pairing, chosen to accommodate classes in similar time zones and encourage continued interaction among cohorts.

Your journey begins in San Francisco. The cosmopolitan birthplace of numerous counterculture movements, today the City by the Bay is the global nexus of technology and entrepreneurship. While you adjust to the rigorous pace of academics at Minerva in the interdisciplinary Cornerstone courses, you also begin to cement bonds of friendship with your new classmates and explore the diversity of this progressive urban environment.

In your second year, as you start to define your personal course of study, you travel to Seoul and Bangalore. These two asian megacities offer different vantage points on the new economy, with dramatic growth fueled by relatively young populations, new ideas, and rapid technological change.

Year three takes place in Berlin and Buenos Aires. As your academics become more focused, your global perspective will continue to expand. In the German and Argentine capitals you will witness distinct societal responses to postwar reconstruction, with the bohemian sensibility of New Berlin contrasting the sophisticated urbanity of the local “Porteños” in Buenos Aires.

Your fourth year brings you to Istanbul, the ancient continental crossroads, and London, the world’s financial hub. While you work to complete your final Capstone project, you will gain deeper insight into global commerce from these prominent cultural and economic centers.

It is an education that uses the world as your campus to impart a deep understanding of the interconnections among the people and places that are shaping our collective future. It is a journey conceived to prepare you for a lifetime of global citizenship.”

Ben Nelson

Students share dorms/long term hotels/who knows that remind me of the intentional community that I grew up in. When I went to Minerva’s Ascent weekend, a sort of open house/orientation I blogged about last week, I was surprised to see how much space there was that I saw current students sharing. A huge kitchen, downstairs living area, upstairs sun room––there’s a space on each floor for sharing life.

Very subjective opinion piece: The Students

The students I met at Ascent are some of the most amazing kids I’ve ever met. Granted, the weekend was a short time in which we were all trying to be our best selves and get to know each other… but there was something special about each of them. Maybe I should say, they were special because they resonated so completely with my own self, my own interests. The kids I’ve met in Tucson, at the University of Arizona, of course are interesting, heartfelt, special as well. The U of A is a great school for some… but it’s a bad fit for me. I need to emphasize this: if you’re going to the U of A, to a traditional college, good for you. I hope you’re happy. I know first hand how exciting it can be, how many opportunities there are to take advantage of. I know. But it isn’t worth it for me.

This was one of the first times I was surrounded by so many people my age who valued the same weird things I valued, who communicated the same way I did, who challenged my misconceptions about the world instead of believing in the same ones. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t have met people like them in my own life––I’ve certainly met a few people here like them. The difference is that at Minerva, you’re surrounded with people like this. That was deal sealer for me––my living experience at Minerva would be compiled of interactions with people who wanted to go to museums with me every weekend, who wanted to travel and so did, who regularly aspire to ‘achieve extraordinary’ (Minerva’s slogan) and most importantly, inspire me to do the same. I have felt a change within me since I joined the Facebook group and went to Ascent: more creative, more firm in my own self, more adventurous, wanting to try new things even if they’re scary (although new things are becoming less and less scary), and more willing to take (safe) risks to get what I would like. I want to be a better, brighter, happier person when I’m around these folks.

I can’t wait to spend four years with them all. To watch them grow up. To watch myself grow up.


FAQ and myth breaking

Unfortunately, we use terms to discuss these innovations that already are surrounded with misconceptions because we have few others to describe something like this. “Online school” and “for-profit” in particular sit ill with those unfamiliar with Minerva.

See? I bet you’ve already built up expectations of the school in your mind!

Suspend what you think you know for a while. :)

“It’s an online school? So you just watch videos when you feel like it, right?”

Yes, and no. It is online, and it is a school––but Minerva bears no resemblance to say, the University of Phoenix. Students all log on to the Active Learning Forum at the same time, 9am-11:30am and 12pm-1:30pm Monday through Thursday. Attendance is taken, and you’re graded on your performance in class. All students live together and participate in co-curriculars that are integrated with the online discussions.

“Minerva is for-profit. How could you trust such an institution!?”

You hear this one a lot. Actually, it almost stopped me from going, from even learning more about the program! Luckily, curiosity drove me to keep looking… and lo and behold, it turns out, Minerva isn’t really for profit.

Check out Stephen Kosslyn’s great answer to my question about it on Reddit, or read it here:

Me: “Recent admit to class of 2020 here. :) Can you justify why Minerva is a for-profit school?”

Stephen Kosslyn:

“Actually, it’s not. Minerva is three separate organizations:

  1. Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI, the most recent member of the Claremont consortium). I head this. We are KGI’s undergrad program. KGI is nonprofit, and so are the Minerva Schools there.
  2. Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship. Former Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey heads this. The Institute raises money for scholarships, administers a prize for innovations in higher education, and supports faculty research. It is nonprofit.
  3. Minerva Project. This is a for-profit company, headed by Ben Nelson. Minerva Project develops intellectual property. For example, our cloud-based software for conducting real-time seminars is already in demand; the curriculum rests on thousands of pages of notes, which also have value; we have developed a course for training faculty on how to do active learning in ways that draw on the science of learning, etc. Minerva Project funds the other components, and any intellectual property that is developed there reverts to Minerva Project.

    Also, I should note that most things of value in our society are actually produced by for-profit companies (take a look around you right now–how many of those things were produced by nonprofits?). In the context of Minerva, the issue is making sure that the incentives are aligned properly. We have spent a lot of time thinking about this, and ensuring that the incentives of the different organizations are aligned. The fact that Minerva Project is for-profit does not in any way influence what happens in the Schools.”

 “But everywhere I look it says Minerva is a for profit school.”

True, because it’s new, a lot of people just take what one person said and repeat it. It happens. But you’ll see articles starting to correct themselves! Take this Business Insider report on Minerva. They refer to Minerva as a for-profit school, but at the bottom of the article, a note has been added:

“A previous version of this post incorrectly described Minerva as a for-profit college. It is a non-profit undergraduate program. The Minerva Project is a for-profit company which owns the technology and intellectual property associated with the Minerva Schools.”

Take this as you will; believe what you want. I don’t think this classifies as a for-profit school at all. I’d like to also point out that even non-profit colleges that are widely known and accepted to be non-profit can have some really sketchy stuff going on financially. Take the University of Arizona’s huge paychecks for sports coaches and the president. If running a university these days isn’t for a profit, I don’t know what is. Finally, even when Minerva is considered to be a for-profit school, they’re said to be the ones doing it right, as The Atlantic reports in The Downfall of For-Profit Colleges.

“Indeed, the for-profit college sector isn’t inherently bad, and many institutions are expanding access and producing worthy outcomes. As The Atlantic reported last September, some schools, such as Minerva, are experimenting with unconventional teaching models and virtual platforms in an attempt to reinvent the college experience.”


“Lectures are banned? …WTF?”

Ben Nelson, the founder, loves to say, “Lectures are a great way to teach. A great way to teach, but a terrible way to learn.” And he’s right. No style is better when it comes to mass indoctrination of thousands of youth across the world. But individuals learn better through discussion, thinking, exploration of the topics. #science

“So what are classes like instead?”

We participate in small (under 19 students) seminars twice a day, four times a week. Fridays are for exploring the cities we’re living in at the time and experiential learning. The first year centers around learning how to think, analyze data, understand decision making, etc. Sophomores pick a college in major in (Natural Sciences, Computational Sciences, Business, Arts and Humanities, or Social Sciences), Juniors find their concentration. Seniors work with a faculty mentor to design their own syllabus and curriculum for the year and work on a capstone project. Business major? Create a working, sustainable business. Social Sciences with a concentration in politics? Write and pass a bill. And because it’s all online, students can take classes from anywhere and teachers can teach from anywhere, allowing everybody the most freedom to explore and learn.

“So why do you have to live in a residence hall if you take classes online?”

Although you can take classes from anywhere, all students are required to live in the residence halls with their cohort (class). The first year: San Fransisco. Every semester after that the cohorts travel around the world together–– Seoul, Bangalore, Berlin, Buenos Aires, London, and possibly Istanbul (depending on the developing political climate). We live in the residence halls together to ensure that every student gets this global experience, together. We get to collaborate on projects, take classes together, talk about classes together, learn about each other in ways we wouldn’t if we were on different continents. And about a million other reasons.



More resources

Minerva’s website

Minerva’s YouTube channel


“This college startup has a 1.9% acceptance rate, making it tougher to get into than Harvard,” Business Insider, April 2016

“The Future of College?” The Atlantic, September 2014

“Extreme Study Abroad: The World Is Their Campus,” The New York Times, October 2015

“Harvard, Stanford, and Minerva? The Next Elite University at Half the Price,” LinkedIn, April 2015

“With virtual seminars and lower tuition, Minerva Schools offers online alternative to college,” PBS NewsHour

“Students Aren’t Going To College To Learn, They’re Going To Network,” Forbes, April 2016

Readin’, Writin’, Revolution” (A history of Ben Nelson), The Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 2016

**All text in quote boxes not otherwise sourced are taken from Minerva’s website.

Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Email me at phoebeaway@gmail.com!