A new company, backed by some smart folks and their money, says it will “offer an Ivy-standard education at half price.” Online, of course, saving on facilities and other overhead, and thus able to charge less. And presumably also, by virtue of enrolling way more students than any of its nominal competitors, making plenty of money in volume sales, even if its margins are lower.
Will it work? I think so, if we understand “Ivy-standard education” to have to do with what goes on in the classroom. Plenty of people want that and either can’t get in, or can’t or don’t want to pay for it. A well-designed high-end online education shouldn’t be hard to sell to some significant chunk of those folks, if the price is right. And if Minerva’s exclusive enough in its admissions policies, and enables students to leverage the power of a closed, well-designed, richly featured online social network, it might even compete with upper-tier on-campus programs, at least to some degree, in the “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” department.
But do classroom learning and making connections define an on-campus “Ivy-standard” education? I think there’s a third component Minerva needs to add, or rather figure out how to replace – the experience of being in college. That is, the all-absorbing, intenselfy emotional experience of living among other like-minded, like-background students, largely cut off from the world, while constantly being told, ’til you start telling yourselves, that you’re above the rest of that world, either intellectually, socially, or both. This experience, I think, is key both to the appeal of exclusive schools and the price premium they command.
As a society, we see this time as one that’s essential to shaping the self. And of course, as a not-unrelated practical matter, it is when many of us make many of those key connections that help us later in life. Not to speak of meeting lifelong friends and, often, mates. Paying to do this all at an Ivy is like paying to stay at an expensive eco-tourism resort. You want not just to increase your odds of making these connections with the right people, you want this experience to be at once intense and satisfying. That means being among people who are like you, if you’re from an elite background, or like the person you want to be, if you’re trying to get into that sphere – or rather, trying to get your kid into ii.
Colleges have always devoted a lot of attention to designing this experience. And elite colleges have intensified these efforts, it seems to me, since the ’80s – which, not coincidentally, was when tuition began to skyrocket. Since then they’ve made a concerted effort to give students a combination of countryclub amenities and copious opportunities for memorable personal and social experiences – the sort that, again, have traditionally marked college life as both unique, and a uniquely significant stage of one’s life, and also, not incidentally, do much to keep the donations flowing after graduation.
Call this the experience-driven education. The parallel is imperfect, but designing it can be seen as similar to producing a good Hollywood movie. Savvy Hollywood producers, working with talented directors, succeed by designing their customers’ use experience down to the smallest detail. How do elite schools do this, for their students? Substitute “classmates” for “characters,” make sure that those students are told and shown that they’re special and are sharing a unique, important experience, and make sure that experience follows a narrative arc. Think of college as a coming-of-age story. A naif arrives in a new place, knowing he has to learn much, and work hard, to complete a journey that will lead him to a goal he wants to achieve. Those he lives and works with are all doing the same thing, so he feels part of a tight-knit group. The school tells him he’s special, and he and his parents, and his classmates and their parents, look at their tuition bills and will this to be true. Sleeping around and drinking too many pitchers with his friends strengthens those bonds and creates mini-dramas that make the overall experience more intense. Of course there are tough courses to get through, along with other obstacles that make the goal more difficult to achieve, and thus that achievement more meaningful. The occasional friend who drops out, the knowledge that his parents have made a big sacrifice – these things add poignance. Afterward, he gets a job through alumni connections, or, more likely these days, admission to a prestigious grad program that in turn enables him to work in a prestigious profession. He keeps many of his college friends, and it’s an important part of his life to talk with them about the old times, to continue to talk about and do things they discovered they liked to talk about and do, when they were in school. So the whole endeavor seems worthwhile.
Can Minerva compete with the Ivies on this score? I have my doubts. Occasional velvet-rope meetups and online chat rooms aren’t going to cut it. Perhaps Minervea will move into a different niche, competing with second-tier colleges, and online programs run by the first-tier outfits. In any case, the competition will be fascinating to watch – and will do much, I think, to shape the way future generations think not just about learning, but about the experience of “coming of age.”