Research + News

The End of Higher Ed As We Know It?

Does college have a future? Perhaps you’ve wondered if and when it’s all going to come crashing down. Concerned analysts cite the fact that colleges are facing massive budget cuts, enrollment declines, competition for students, and a student body that’s decreasingly prepared for reading, writing, and arithmetic. A declining job market, exorbitant college costs, and mounting student debt are leaving more and more families and their kids looking to postpone college, pursue other vocational options, or enroll in non-traditional forms of higher education.

In the September 2014 edition of The Atlantic, Graeme Wood reports on a young entrepreneur who is challenging the traditional higher ed establishment as well as a host of for-profit universities by re-thinking college. . . making it an educational experience without lectures, traditional classrooms, extra-curricular activities, and tenured professors. Instead Ben Nelson’s accredited Minerva Project (or “University”) is designed to effectively educate students by keeping them highly engaged with material that they are then able to apply to life. While it’s too early to know whether or not Minerva will be a success – both as an institution and in educating students – there’s much to Ben Nelson’s philosophy that is worth thinking about.

From the article:

“Minerva, which operates for profit, started teaching its inaugural class of 33 students this month. To seed this first class with talent, Minerva gave every admitted student a full-tuition scholarship of $10,000 a year for four years, plus free housing in San Francisco for the first year. Next year’s class is expected to have 200 to 300 students, and Minerva hopes future classes will double in size roughly every year for a few years after that. . .

The Minerva boast is that it will strip the university experience down to the aspects that are shown to contribute directly to student learning. Lectures, gone. Tenure, gone. Gothic architecture, football, ivy crawling up the walls—gone, gone, gone. What’s left will be leaner and cheaper. (Minerva has already attracted $25 million in capital from investors who think it can undercut the incumbents.) And Minerva officials claim that their methods will be tested against scientifically determined best practices, unlike the methods used at other universities and assumed to be sound just because the schools themselves are old and expensive. Yet because classes have only just begun, we have little clue as to whether the process of stripping down the university removes something essential to what has made America’s best colleges the greatest in the world.

Minerva will, after all, look very little like a university—and not merely because it won’t be accessorized in useless and expensive ways. The teaching methods may well be optimized, but universities, as currently constituted, are only partly about classroom time. Can a school that has no faculty offices, research labs, community spaces for students, or professors paid to do scholarly work still be called a university?”

Read the entire article here.