Every year, tens of thousands of students from all over the world try their luck on a path that many people find impossible to travel: get a place in one of the most prestigious universities in the United States and, by extension, of the world. They are Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the select Ivy League group (which includes Harvard and Yale). On average, they receive almost 38,000 applications per course and the admission percentages range between 4% and 7%. But if that data serves as proof of the quality of their education, there is another university that has taken the lead. Is called Minerva and this course has only accepted 1.2% of the 23,000 students who applied for a position, 1,300 more than at MIT. The center, which halves the cost of studying at one of these universities, is revolutionizing the US university offer and aims to demonstrate that an elite education is not synonymous with education for the richest.
It is not a centennial institution, nor does it accumulate Nobel prizes among its students, nor does it offer a spectacular campus. On the contrary, Minerva -Which is also a private center- He has just over four years of life and does not even have classrooms. Classes are followed on-line, through a platform that broadcasts them live. The students, however, are nudged to enter it. "The reason for the great demand is that we solve the problems that other universities have: the lack of access to students with fewer resources and the need to teach practical knowledge," says Ben Nelson, responsible for this project incubated in San Francisco, the mecca of the ecosystem start-up.
The place of birth is not a mere chance. Nor the curriculum of its founder. Nelson is a product of the Ivy League system he now points to. Educated at the University of Pennsylvania, he made his first career in the world of digital entrepreneurship as president of Snapfish, a digital photo printing service purchased in 2005 by HP. Afterwards, the goal was to create a reinvented university, able to overshadow Harvard and company, with a seemingly simple recipe: select the best students in the world with the sole criterion of merit and offer them an education adapted to the 21st century.
The university system, says Nelson, is archaic and is meant for a world that no longer exists. "The problem is that universities are doing a good job, but for yesterday's world. They are not adapted to this world, in which you change careers, you do very different things and you need transferability, "he criticizes.
Nelson participated last week in Barcelona in a talk organized by the business school Esade, following the event 4YFN, within the framework of Mobile World Congress. The debate -in which they also intervened Koldo Echebarria, Director general of Esade, and Mark Vernooij, of the THNK leadership school, founded in Amsterdam, aimed to reflect on the need to reinvent education. When asked what the role of universities should be in the 21st century, Nelson begins by discarding any questions that may be asked in the future tense. "The conversations that start with a 'how should the university of the future?' Make people settle down."
The traditional idea that the university is responsible for teaching its students to do only one thing, although at a high level - being a lawyer, doctor, mathematician ... - is "false", he says. "The work of the universities is, first and foremost, giving you access to a set of tools that can be transferred to any situation, no matter which path you decide to take. And then, train in the field in which you are interested, "he says. "But that first element is what universities generally ignore. And that is a disaster. "
No campus or classrooms
The Minerva project, which in 2012 obtained 25 million dollars in financing from the Benchmark Capital investment fund, started in 2014 with only 69 students and doubts about the unknown and unique nature of its proposal. To begin with, in the entrance exams the results of the SAT (the equivalent to the selectivity in the USA) are not taken into account, but they have designed their own admission process to select students with the merit as the only criterion. There is no campus either. The students begin their four year journey in San Francisco, where they live in a common residence with the rest of their classmates and attend the interactive classes virtually (although they deny being a university on-line). Afterwards, each semester they travel and live in six other countries and cities: Buenos Aires (Argentina), London (United Kingdom), Berlin (Germany), Hyderabad (India), Taipei (Taiwan) and Seoul (South Korea).
"We expose students to how the world really works," explains the person in charge. Classes have a maximum of 20 students and under no circumstances they can be master lessons. "They do not work. It has been shown that only 10% retention occurs ". The university currently offers five degrees - in Arts and Humanities, Computer Sciences, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences and Business - in an open conception of what an academic curriculum should be. The idea is to train flexible professionals capable of moving in complex environments and adapting to the drastic changes that, surely, they will have to face as soon as they start working.
The debate on how to educate the citizens of the future It is not new or exclusive to Minerva, but it is at the top of the list of priorities of any educational institution. The formula proposed by this university is to focus on learning not so much on a body of knowledge that is received passively, but on deeper and cross-cutting skills that are actively worked on: critical thinking, creative problem solving, communication effective ... But that speech is not new either. "Any university in the world says it teaches all this," Nelson acknowledges. "But if you ask them how they do it, they'll tell you that they teach you History, or Science ... and then the rest of the things you learn by accident." During the first course, the students dedicate themselves exclusively to work that intellectual base and not so much to receive technical knowledge.
Four years after the first students inaugurated the peculiar non-classrooms of Minerva, the number of students who want to swell their ranks does not stop growing. The almost 2,500 applications of the first course have multiplied by nine and the percentage of admission has fallen from 2.8% to 1.2%, despite the fact that the university does not have a maximum of places.
Does not this contribute to reinforcing the idea that a quality higher education is an education reserved for a few? "We are the most selective university in the United States, but we have 90% of foreign students and our students are more socioeconomically diverse than in any other university in the country," says Nelson. "What happens in the most selective traditional universities is that they give huge advantages to applicants with more resources." While half of the students in the Ivy League pay an average of 70,000 dollars a year, he explains, in Minerva 80% of their students can not afford more than 30,000 dollars. The figure is light years away from what the university costs in Spain, but very in tune with prices in the US (between $ 40,000 and $ 50,000 per course, according to the College Board).
Minerva's founding team includes weight names such as former Harvard president Larry Summers (who is no longer linked to the project), although critical voices point out that at the moment it's just a prototype, an experiment with a margin of risk. The truth is that the question of how she will value the labor market for her students overflows, because her first graduation has just graduated. His proposal, in any case, aims to be a wake-up call on the great challenges facing higher education: digitization, internationalization and equality in access to the university.