Ben Nelson, the Founder of Minerva: “There really isn’t a philosophy that is as comprehensive as the Minerva philosophy”

Ben Nelson is the founder of the Minerva Project and Minerva University. The latter, headed the World University Rankings for Innovation (WIRU) in 2022 and 2023, leaving Stanford, Harvard and MIT far behind. Nelson believes that traditional universities are outdated and that the world education system needs to be changed completely. EdDesign Mag asked Nelson what’s wrong with Harvard and end-of-term tests, why it’s critical to have a 50-year plan, why adaptive learning is better than other types of personalized learning, and what the school of the future should be like.

Ben Nelson, founder of the Minerva Project and Minerva University

Ben Nelson comes from a family of scientists. He graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics. Before founding Minerva in 2012, he was CEO of Snapfish photo sharing service which was bought by Hewlett-Packard for $300 million. With a $25 million received from venture investors, Nelson began Minerva Project.

Minerva University is a private university headquartered in San Francisco. Unlike conventional universities, Minerva doesn’t have a campus. There are no academic buildings, libraries, sports grounds, or laboratories. Students live together in residential facilities and meet in classes delivered on a digital platform. They start their education in San Francisco and then move to Seoul, Taipei, Hyderabad, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, and Berlin. `I study at a nomadic university,` one of the students wrote.

Nelson once traveled to South America to learn more about local winemaking. He planned his trip to Chile entirely on his own, while in Argentina he used the services of a guide. After a few months, Nelson realized that the experience from Chile, which he organized and implemented by himself, remained vivid, and memories from Argentina were completely forgotten. This was one example of why actively engaging the brain in learning yields better knowledge retention. The Minerva pedagogy, based on the science of learning, does not include lectures where students passively listen to professors, but consists of active and experiential learning.

From the very first year, the university became famous for its strict selection process. In 2014, only 69 out of 2,464 applicants were able to enroll. This first group studied for free, now the tuition costs approximately $32,000 per year, including accommodation. 

The curriculum is based on cognitive science and lasts four years. It starts with a ‘foundation’ year where students learn ‘habits of mind’, such as cognitive skills, effective communication skills, critical thinking, and creative thinking. Next, they study `Foundational Concepts`.


— First of all, congratulations! Isn’t it 10 years this year? 

— For Minerva? No! 12! 2014 is when we launched, but we’ve been working on it for years before. 


— So, my first question is, how is the journey going?

It’s actually quite remarkable. It’s going according to plan. I was at an event yesterday and I met somebody and he asked me what I was doing. And I said, you know, I started working on Minerva 14 years ago and I have a 50-year plan. And he asked me, what percentage in the first 14 years did you predict initially? I said, oh, about 90%. And he was shocked! He was like, that’s impossible! Wasn’t there a change? I said, no. Just little bits and pieces, details, things like that. 


When I started Minerva, it was a very clear plan. We’re going to start the world’s greatest university. It was going to focus on wisdom, on scaffolding learning so that people can apply it in flexible ways, transfer it. That will be a beacon that other universities will follow. We’re then going to start performing global higher education. Eventually, we’re going to form high school education. 


And that’s what we’re doing. And in fact, in some ways, it’s been ahead of plan. I mean, we were ranked the number one university in the world already two years ago. We’re the first university launched since the 19th century to have ever gotten that number one global ranking. And I didn’t think it would happen that fast. 


— But, you know, to have a plan for 50 years in our world… Sometimes I think I don’t have a plan for the next year.

But this is actually one of the real advantages. There’s this famous saying that the world always changes slower than people think, but faster than they imagine. If you look at a one, two-year horizon, almost nothing changes and people think everything is going to change. But then when you look at a 20-year horizon, then things are very, very different, even though not in the way that we think they are. And systematic thinking in a world that is global, fast moving, automated is absolutely crucial. The need for it is only increasing. But the reform of the secondary and post-secondary education sectors globally is a very long plan.

Now, you could imagine that there will be a black swan event. Governments will give up on colleges. They’ll say, you know what, colleges are doing such a terrible job. We stop, we’re not going to subsidize them. The sector collapses. Yet, even in that scenario, people will have to learn something. Somebody will have to be able to say this person knows X, Y and Z, and they know how to apply it. So even if fundamental seismic changes happen, even though unlikely, what we’re building is timeless in that regard. And so having a long term plan is crucial.


— Have you envisioned the specific type of students you expect to enter the university? Because now it’s harder to get into Minerva than to Harvard. 

— When I ran Minerva, we were the most selective university in the world. Now, Minerva is an independent university, and may have changed its admissions process, so they may or may not be as selective as we were in the past. 

And we also never rejected a qualified student. The head of admissions at Harvard, 20 years ago already, said 70 percent of our applicants are fully qualified to go to Harvard. At Minerva, the one percent of our applicants who were admitted were all qualified. So it wasn’t that we looked at our applicant pool and said, well, you’re qualified, but you shouldn’t be here. We’ll reject you and pick somebody else instead.

They say it is harder to get into Harvard than to graduate from it. At Minerva, if you want to graduate, you are a mental ninja because of how we train you. So that really is a huge difference. Not only do we have a much more diverse student body than any other university in the world, but the improvement that a student is able to make in a Minerva program is historically high.

Photo: courtesy of Minerva


— But with such a large pool of applicants, how do you select from among these talented kids?

— We created a system that basically sorts through the applicants. Some of it was automated: we saw they had basic math and English and stuff like that. Because we had twenty five thousand applicants a year and we couldn’t process manually, we had to eliminate the majority of them in an automated way. But for that short list, we had structured interviews. We looked at what they accomplished outside of an academic setting. We analyze their transcripts. And then every step we weeded out more and more and more until we had a core small group. And then we verified everything they said. Only those who passed the verification then got admissions. 


— What type of school model or what type of education can actually prepare your kind of student? What would it be? 

We asked ourselves that question. We admitted students from 100 different countries, from every school model you could imagine, and none of them was really prepared for this type of education. And none of them worked. This is actually why we developed our own high school curriculum, which is called the Minerva Baccalaureate. And over the last four years, very quietly, we’ve been developing and testing it. And over the last two and a half years, we actually partnered with two schools in Korea to deliver it. Now we’ve created a whole company around the Minerva Baccalaureate. We’re starting to bring the Minerva Baccalaureate curriculum to schools all over the world.

Most schools, whether they’re state, country level school, country level curricula or Cambridge, British A-levels or A-levels from other countries, do the exact same thing. You take a class with a teacher for one year. You sit for a final exam. You pass the exam and then you forget everything you took on the exam. The same model. There’s no difference. You will take your biology and then you’ll forget your biology and you’ll take your chemistry and then you’ll forget your chemistry and take your physics. Apply what you learned in biology to history? Forget it. Do something with what you learn? Forget it.


Then there are these experimental schools that are project based. But, you know, the first rule of decision science is you never judge the quality of a decision by its outcome. When you do something, you may do something disastrously wrong, and get a good outcome. Or you may have exactly the right decisions, ninety nine percent likelihood of success, but you’ve got the one percent that didn’t work. So you cannot judge your decision quality by the outcome. And a project based learning is purely an outcome. The issue with the project based schools is the kids don’t understand the fundamentals. Because they’re like, oh, you know, forget the fundamentals, we’ll just do stuff. Guess what? It’s kind of important to do stuff once you build on top of knowledge! 

The Minerva approach is about frameworks. And the frameworks live on top of knowledge bases and get applied to real work. And this approach is unlike any we’ve seen at hundreds of other schools. And that’s why we actually created the Minerva Baccalaureate, to be able to bring that approach to any school that wants to come into the 21st century.


— How long does Minerva baccalaureate last? 

— It’s a three plus one program. So it could be done just as a three year diploma program or it could be three years of high school with a fourth year that has some college level courses that reinforce what the students learn in the first three years. 


— And the age of students is… 

— High school. 14 to 18. 


— Is it the same system where you study online and also have a campus where you live together? Or how does it work? 

Whatever the school implements. It could be a regular brick and mortar school. It could be a virtual school. It could be residential. It doesn’t matter. Minerva Baccalaureate classes are only an hour and 40 minutes a day, five days a week. So the school has the majority of the school day to do other things. But it’s the core learning, your history, your language arts, your science, your math and this kind of personal growth track.

Minerva students in Taipei, Taiwan, at a culinary workshop with local chef Ivy Chen, photos from MU’s social media


— How many schools are you currently partnering with? 

— Well, we just started the business, so we’ve just done these two Korean schools. And we’re now spreading it to other schools around the world.On the higher education side, we’re now working with 15, 16 universities in eight different countries. 


— What is personalized education for you? And where in this personalized education the fundamental stands? Because I completely agree with you. If it’s just about projects and we just go deep into the projects, then what about the rest? 

— Personalized education in most of its instantiations is quite ridiculous. It has kind of this vector that says, hey, you, student X, do you not want to learn math? Ok, you’d be an English student. 

It’s the wrong thing for the individual. Because a student does not always know what they should be, especially at a young age. My nephew is a concert pianist and, yeah, he knew at the age of 7 that he was going to be a pianist. And he’s now almost 18 years old and he’s still going to be a concert pianist. And that’s great. But he is one out of a million.That’s not how human beings are. Human beings need to discover. They need to see what it is that they have gifts for. And they may want to switch their opinion. You’ve got to have optionality. So personalized learning that constricts what you do doesn’t make sense.

Then there’s a second way of personalized learning. Which is to say, oh, people learn in different ways. There are visual learners and auditory learners and all the rest. Untrue. All the empirical evidence proves there’s no such thing. Yes, there are people that have extreme learning differences or gifts and there are people who have severe learning disabilities. Or there are others who have a photographic memory. And that’s a separate area and approach. But normally you learn by going and applying what it is that you’re encountering. And you don’t need to personalize methodologies of learning for different people by and large. 

Photos from MU’s social media


Then you’ve got this other personalized learning – adaptive learning. I actually was a big believer in it. Adaptive learning makes a lot of sense. It just hasn’t been implemented very well. The core premise of adaptive learning and the only place it’s been implemented is math in elementary school.

My daughters both went through a software layer called IXL. What does IXL do? It asks you a math question. It sees how long it takes you to answer it; it sees if you answer it right or wrong. And then, depending on that, it gives you a second math question. And a third. And a fourth. And a fifth. And it adapts to what you know and don’t know. Clearly, that is better than giving a worksheet that’s the same for everybody and telling them “Fill out this worksheet”.

So that is good adaptive learning. And you can adopt that in all sorts of things. It’s kind of absurd to get 20, 30 kids in one room and say “Let’s all do a math problem, and we’ll allocate five minutes to do the problem”. Some people are done in one minute and some people need 12 minutes. So personalized learning for asynchronous, correct/incorrect stuff is exactly where it belongs. But we call that homework. That’s what homework is.

And it’s very different from being able to say, “Hey, you don’t need to learn how to multiply because we’re going to personalize it for you”. No. You’ve got to learn how to multiply. You’ve got to be able to distinguish between a fact and a claim. You have to be able to understand how to communicate in effective ways.


So you can acquire knowledge in a way that’s personalized for you, and then you get together in a social learning setting to explore how to apply that knowledge through frameworks that you’ve also acquired, and see what happens when you apply it. And that is how you create effective personalized learning: asynchronous to acquire information, and social learning, that takes advantage of an expert and a group of learners that are exploring how to use what they’ve learned.


— Are there any competitors to your model at the moment? 

— Not really. I mean, there are plenty of different instantiations of education out there. But there really isn’t a philosophy that is as comprehensive as the Minerva philosophy. 

Just look at high school education as an example. Look at the I.B. versus the A levels. I.B. will say, oh, look how different we are. But how are they different? Because you take seven subjects as opposed to three? That’s the difference? These are not fundamentally different approaches. And then there are the project based schools, and it’s a different approach. But it’s not really grounded in science. It’s not grounded in evidence. To come up with a different system of education there should be more. 

Photo: courtesy of Minerva


— Yeah, because talking about innovations in education, there hasn’t been much change for centuries. Unlike revolutionary innovations like Uber, which is dramatically changing the way you operate… 

— I’ve always said that if education technology was tasked 15 years ago with starting ride hailing, they would have built an app to turn the flashlight on your phone on so you could hail a cab more easily. That’s effectively how education thinks. It assumes that everything is the same. Your subject, test, move on. And all the iterations around that.


— What do you think about this world of tests? 

— Tests were introduced because there was no assessment mechanism before them. Harvard Medical School instituted tests in the late 19th century because before then it graduated students who couldn’t read or write. And they were killing their patients. So eventually, in the late 19th century, Harvard said: we should have tests to know that our students can read the instructions on the medication. Tests are a very rudimentary form of assessment. But the world is still stuck on this concept, which is only being able to demonstrate bare minimum levels of knowledge at one point in time.


— So what is the best way for you to assess the student’s not even ability, but experience? 

— Constant formative feedback, using rubrics and being aware of how a student applies information over time rather than just being able to know at one point. 


— And finally, what is your plan, maybe not for 50 years, but for the near future? 

— Right now we’re focused on getting more universities to build Minerva programs and more schools using the Minerva Baccalaureate. And on creating intersections between them. Having universities and high schools collaborate and shrink the footprint of high school and university educations in a more efficient way, which can easily be done if they’re of the same system. So that really is our focus for the coming years.

— Do you think Minerva can become more accessible to students? 

Absolutely. There are universities across four continents that offer Minerva programs, and our aim is to keep increasing that number.

Photo: courtesy of Minerva


— So you do plan to influence the world of education globally, right? 

Yes. I mentioned that we work with 17 institutions in nine countries: the US, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Spain, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, and Korea. We’re working very, very broadly. Similarly, our Minerva Baccalaureate is rapidly expanding. I am confident that if we revisit this conversation five years from now, we will have extended our presence to dozens of countries.


May 2024 

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