Imagine a college experience where you would have the opportunity to live in seven different countries in their campuses across the world, learn with interactive seminars designed to keep you actively learning, and only pay a third of the cost of a American private university — it is in stark contrast to American higher education today but it exists, at the Minerva School at KGI, a venture-backed start-up university. I have had the honor of working there this summer and I believe that they are winning in the top-tier higher education space.
Minerva creates value for each of its audiences. For students, they would learn more effectively. Minerva applies cutting edge research on the science of learning to create a better pedagogy, coined “Active Learning,” where students are actively engaged at all times. This pedagogy is supported by a proprietary software platform, the Active Learning Forum, where the faculty can hold highly interactive classes online with a dozen or so students. The software can also capture a lot more data than possible in traditional classrooms, which enables students to receive more specific feedback and track the arc of their development over time. Taking classes online also releases geographic constraints, where students and faculty do not necessarily need to co-locate. There will be seven campuses across the world and in four years, each student would spend at least a semester in each of them. Eliminating traditional classrooms as well as libraries, gyms, and other buildings on campus — only keeping the traditional dormitory to facilitate the social experience of being in college — also significantly reduces the costs. Minerva only costs about a third of a traditional American private university.
For investors, Minerva is attractive because it is easy to scale and does not have the capacity constraints or high capital expenditure requirements of a typical university. To expand to a new city would only require a building for student dormitory. To enroll more students would only require hiring proportional numbers of faculty. Then, Minerva is building an elite brand, where last year only ~2% of the 11,000 applications were admitted. It is positioning itself to be a credible player in the top-tier higher education space. Minerva challenges the traditional universities through many provocative features in publications such as The Atlantic: why are you still primarily teach through lectures, when lecturing is a passive and ineffective way to learn? It also shifts the perception set by startups like Coursera and Udacity that “online education” does not have to be a MOOC, or a Massive Open Online Course, but can be small and interactive.
Minerva is capturing value in a traditional way, by charing students for tuition, housing, and fees, like other universities. Currently it offers accredited bachelors programs and is looking to offer more, including masters programs. There are other revenue opportunities that are not yet explored, such as licensing the classroom software, the curriculum, or both in a bundle to other educational institutions or interested organizations.
As educational institutions are beginning to innovate in the new digital era, Minerva is an early and innovative mover.