Minerva, a higher education outsider, now an accredited university

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Ben Nelson is a charter member of the higher education disruption crowd. Its members, often ed-tech entrepreneurs, investors and others promoting alternatives to traditional colleges and universities, believe most institutions are too expensive or ineffective, operate on too small a scale, and fail to innovate and adapt to changes in student demands.

Nelson put his (and others') money where his mouth was nearly a decade ago when he founded the Minerva Project, which strove to outperform the nation's best-known and most selective institutions by creating a new institution from scratch that would enroll students who could apply to Harvard and Stanford Universities but give them a higher-touch, practical education in a blended format that sent them to multiple continents.

While Nelson shares many views in common with other entrepreneurs in the postsecondary space, he parted ways with them on one favorite bugaboo: the shortcomings of the U.S. system of accreditation.

Accreditors are an easy target for those who think higher education is stuck in the past; the quality-assurance agencies are frequently blamed for stifling innovation and requiring colleges and universities to focus on compliance and minimum standards rather than excellence or student affordability.

"I reject that, and we're absolute proof" that accreditors can and will embrace approaches or practices that break with the higher education norm, Nelson said in a Zoom conversation Wednesday.

The occasion for the conversation was today's news that Minerva University, the nonprofit institution that grew from Nelson's original for-profit Minerva Project, had earned full accreditation as a freestanding institution from the WASC Senior College and University Commission. That is the final step in a multistage process that has seen Minerva go from an ambitious concept to an academic program incubated by a traditional graduate school to what it can now be: an independently governed and operating university with the same stamp of approval as the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford.

"This is actually the ninth time we passed an accreditation process, and we didn't change a thing in the core offering of Minerva because of the demands of accreditors," Nelson said -- no challenges to its mix of in-person and technology-enabled learning, or to its curriculum that forgoes the lecture in favor of project-based learning.

For institutions that might purport to be hamstrung because accreditors wouldn't let them do something out of the box, Nelson is skeptical. "There is nothing stopping an accredited institution from doing everything we do, or any aspect of what we do," he said.

Accreditation may not have held Minerva back, but did it do anything to help it? Nelson's answers to this question are less likely to show up in the Western accreditor's list of favorite press clippings. Nelson says the WSCUC "forced us to answer questions that we had never asked ourselves" ("Do you have a disaster plan?") and is now requiring Minerva to have its own independent library, since it can no longer tap into the Claremont Colleges collections that it shared as part of the Keck Graduate Institute.

Did the Western accreditor offer any assistance or oversight that actually improved the quality of Minerva's education? This is where Nelson's self-confidence reveals itself: "Minerva was born because it wanted to provide the best educational experience, and that's been our focus from the start. [WSCUC] wasn't going to help us on that. But they did ask all the right questions -- are you defining learning objectives and showing how students are meeting them? We just had great answers."

What's Ahead for Minerva (Both Parts of It)

There are two Minervas.

One is the (now fully independent) nonprofit institution Minerva University. It remains small -- until now, as the Minerva Schools at KGI, it has turned out a total of about 400 graduates in three undergraduate and three graduate cohorts. The university itself is unlikely to grow significantly, Nelson said; it has focused on fundraising to allow it to charge roughly a third of what other highly selective institutions charge and to forgo federal financial aid, which it will continue to do.

Nelson said he did not expect the educational institution itself to change drastically as a result of being accredited. It will continue to hone the education it provides to its small classes and to raise philanthropic support to keep it affordable to students.

The bigger changes will come in the for-profit Minerva Project, which provides technological and other supports to the nonprofit side and as well as to other institutions. That entity is where Minerva is likely to have the biggest impact on changing higher education from within, Nelson asserts. In recent years it has struck partnerships with several universities -- many of them foreign -- that adopt or adapt Minerva's curricular model or other elements.

Nelson, ever the disrupter, says he's heard increasingly in the last year from "university leaders who are forward-thinking and aren't satisfied with the status quo" about having Minerva build new colleges or programs for them.

“A lot of them see COVID as the ‘emperor has no clothes’ moment,” he said, “when the world saw, beamed in their living rooms, how bad our education was.”

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