Q&A with Minerva Founder Ben Nelson

by Ben Nelson | Jan 12, 2017

Minerva Founder Ben Nelson recently sat down to answer questions on reddit during his second AMA. Read highlights from his session below:

Tuition for Minerva is something like 1/5 that of the Ivy League…does that represent a cost differential? How can you retain top faculty at that cost level? wittyid2016

Tuition and fees at Minerva are a little under 1/3 that of other private universities. The reason that we are able to hire and retain top faculty at those levels is because the bulk of our tuition goes toward paying faculty whereas the vast majority of tuition payments at other universities goes to other things. First, we have no campus since our students live in residence halls (for which they pay with room charges) in the heart of some of the world’s greatest cities. Second, we don’t offer any college athletics which runs some schools costs of $10,000 per matriculating student per year or more. Third, we don’t offer professors tenure which helps inflate professor salaries and drives a rise in adjuncts to offset. Fourth, we don’t subsidize professor research with undergraduate tuition — a feature unique to American and Australian higher education and absent anywhere else in the world. Lastly, we have a much lower overhead largely because we don’t do any of the above four things.

What does “a university program for the 21st century” mean? – skyscraperdream

University education today is quite similar to what it looked like decades if not centuries ago. Much like in medicine, engineering, science, and a myriad of other fields, we have learned a thing or two over that time period about how to make education work better. Minerva is the only university program in the world that systemically applies principles from the science of learning not only to how we teach students but to what we teach and the design of the institution itself. It’s why after one year at Minerva our students are able to excel in jobs that most Ivy League graduates would find difficult to succeed in.

What advice would you give someone starting their own venture? Basssinger123

The most important advice I can give someone starting their own venture is to NOT start it if they are doing it for the sake of starting something. Starting a venture needs to be driven by a core conviction — a mission that you are willing to commit to for a decade or more. If you cannot articulate clearly what the mission of the organization you are starting is, you should go and work for someone who can.

Outside of education reform, what do you like to do to pass time? – igotsquestions7

I am a major fan of classical music, I enjoy travel (which comes in handy in my line of work), a political junkie, and love inventive food and good wine (not necessarily expensive).

Compared to other (older, prestigious universities) such as the Ivy Leagues, how do you expect Minerva to perform in the job market? (considering it is such a new institution and even the first batch has not yet graduated, the question becomes an important one) While a 21st century education sounds fascinating, at the end of the day, the type of jobs people have after graduation remains an important factor in deciding which college to attend, so why would one consider Minerva to be a safe bet, keeping in mind that as of yet, it has not done amazingly well (or bad, for that matter) in the job market? HamzaAKhan

It turns out that this was one of the greatest surprises for me as Minerva’s founder. I thought that it would take us years to see how well our students do compared to their peers at other universities. But we received evidence much sooner. In fact, 87% of our first year students at Minerva expressed a desire to work over their summer break. 100% of those students were placed in jobs. That in and of itself is a remarkable statistic but the truly amazing part was that the vast majority of those positions were ones where Minerva students were either the only first year students of any university or the only students in general. On top of that, at the end of the summer we surveyed the students’ direct managers and asked them to rate our students’ performance on a scale of 1–10. 100% of managers gave Minerva students a 9 or a 10 and 90% said that our first year students EXCEEDED their expectation of an undergraduate intern from an elite university from ANY year. Net/net, we have now shown that employers from banking to consulting, from technology to venture capital, in government and the arts, in research and social enterprise, place Minerva students above those of the most selective universities in the world.

What has been the most shocking realization or discovery you’ve had since founding Minerva? helloworld789o

When I started Minerva I knew that so-called need blind institutions were actually discriminatory against the non-uber wealthy but I had no idea just how much. To give you some perspective, at the overwhelming majority of “need-blind” elite private universities, 40–50% of the student body pays $60,000 to $70,000+ per year in tuition, fees, room and board. That means that 40–50% of the student body at those institutions comes from the wealthiest 1% of households in the world. At Minerva, where total costs are $29,450 per year and our admissions are strictly merit based and truly need-blind, more than 80% of our students require some form of financial aid. In fact, if we were to charge the same as other highly selective American universities, only 4–5% of our students would be full pay students. So how do American universities pull this off? How do they manage to discriminate so blatantly while following a supposedly need-blind process? They simply advantage rich kids in the process. Almost 20% of Ivy League students are legacy admits — admits that are also predisposed to being very rich. Another 20% at Harvard (even more at liberal arts colleges like Williams) are recruited athletes — and approximately half of Harvard’s recruited intercollegiate athletic programs are bastions of the wealthy — tennis, water polo, sailing, crew, fencing, etc. Lastly, universities continue to rely on SAT scores and pre-written essays knowing full well that money can be and is used to buy expert training in taking SAT tests as well as having someone write the essays for you. Net/net, these institutions can safely hide behind a process that doesn’t directly ask you how much money do mommy and daddy make but stack the class as if they did.

Why not reform current institutions instead of reinvent the wheel? It seems like a lot of work to start from scratch. asdfjklmnop2

Minerva was actually born out of my idea to reform the University of Pennsylvania more than twenty years ago. The problem was, the existing universities had no interest to reform — they continue to have demand for their current produce because there is no better alternative. In fact, if you want to see the last positive systemic reform of American higher education (there have been a couple of negative ones since) it occurred in the 1870’s when Johns Hopkins blended the German research university model with the American liberal arts college tradition. Within a decade the large majority of new and existing institutions reformed to rise up to the better model that Hopkins introduced. Minerva’s mission is to nurture critical wisdom for the sake of the world. It isn’t a mission we can accomplish unless other institutions reform and other institutions won’t reform unless there is a demonstrably better alternative out there to force their hand — that is why Minerva exists.

Hello! Hope you are well. As a student considering transferring into Minerva, my grades have been abysmal due to the environment I have been in for the past semester. However, I still feel that I belong at this school and can contribute to the Minerva community. How much, would you say, academic excellence plays a role into admissions? Considering personal challenges and achievements. I know this is a vague question that is difficult to answer, however, it would surely ease my anxieties. Thank you so much! Have a wonderful day. skh1234

If your performance in another educational environment (such as high school) was stellar we will consider your application though there are a number of other factors we consider. Having said that, formal academic performance is important for us in the evaluation process as it shows long term commitment to perform at a high level even if the environment itself was a poor one.

Potential student here! In your eyes, what makes Minerva’s student body special? ehynotdoit

The Minerva student body is not only the most diverse undergraduate student body in the world (more than three quarters coming from outside the United Sates and no other country making up a double digit percentage of the class) but every single student at Minerva deserves to be here. At Minerva, you cannot be admitted based on who your mom and dad are, if you donated a building, if you are a star water polo center but aren’t exactly intellectually exceptional, or for any other reason outside of pure merit. 100% of our students are exceptional, passionate, and intellectually curious. That is why our students are so special.

What, in your opinion, is the most difficult aspect of leading a university/movement to displace higher education according to your experience with Minerva? skippyskid

It takes time. For me this isn’t difficult because I know Minerva is my life’s work. Higher education is a cautious sector but as Minerva grows and demonstrates our results in larger and larger scale, universities will have no choice but to reform. The smart institutions won’t wait until it’s inevitable.

How’s the founding class doing? Where are they now? – helloworld789o

The Founding Class merged with the Inaugural Class to form the class of 2019. They have completed the first semester of their Sophomore year in Berlin and are now enjoying the warm weather in Buenos Aires for their spring semester.

Since Minerva has no specific quota for the number of students that can be accepted each cycle (as far as I understand, anyone who passes a certain level gets in), what would happen if an exceedingly large number of brilliant students get accepted into Minerva? How would they be accommodated? Also, since there is a maximum of 18 students per lecture, how would a huge number of students be accommodated? – DarthQadir

It is true that we never reject a qualified student but to qualify for Minerva the applicant must meet a very high bar that not only looks at formal educational performance but exceptional performance on our challenges and demonstrable and verifiable accomplishments outside of an academic setting. We always over-provision the beds we have in San Francisco since we don’t know how many students we will have the following year. As an example, we have just under 160 students in the class of 2020 but we have capacity for more than 300 students and we continue to look for future housing locations to allow for even more capacity in the future. We do our annual professor hiring in April and May based on the number of students that matriculate — we grow the institution based on our students as opposed to fill an existing institution with a certain number of students.

Thanks for doing this. Question: who has been the single most influential person in your life? Also: how do you hope to impact the world, outside of education? – betterthanpeanuts

It is a cliche to say my parents but it is true. They educated me in a way that allowed me to conceive of what a great undergraduate education should look like. Outside of my mission in education (which is a mission to enable the solution for many of the world’s pressing problems), I am very passionate about the arts and opera in particular — I would love to find a way to systematically help that art form.

Minerva’s website says [there is] a binding enrollment option. Can you explain this and the purpose? In my country this is not normal. – obamaoutidie

Over the past couple of years we had a number of students who knew Minerva was their first choice and were anxious to know if they were accepted sooner than the wait times involved in the traditional cycle (apply in January, find out in April). So we offer an option to students who commit to coming to Minerva if they are accepted that they will receive an answer within three weeks no matter when they apply. If you know that Minerva is the right place for you, the binding option can help you be done with your college search early if you qualify and relieve the anxiety and pressure of waiting to find out in any case.

What are you most proud of? What are you least proud of? – Bosssbipbap

I don’t really believe in pride so much. I sense it about others (the Jewish concept of Nachat) such as when I see my daughter do something particularly kind for her sister but I don’t really feel like I should be given credit for it. There are many things that I wish I didn’t do in the past — almost all based on language I use when talking to people. One of the reasons almost half of our first year curriculum is about communicating and interacting with others is because I have seen in my life how the intent of what I was saying was meaningless in comparison to negative impact it caused by the way I said it. It’s taken me years to work on how to communicate more effectively and I have a long road ahead of me still.