• We are unique, standing apart from traditional universities and other ways of learning. We believe there is a better way, and refuse to settle for the status quo.
  • —Stephen M. Kosslyn and Ben Nelson (editors) Building the Intentional University: Minerva and the Future of Higher Education, page 3891

Faculty and administrators at American universities are tempted to feel smug. Our higher education system is reputed to be the best in the world. Demand for admission, particularly at elite institutions, is very high. Economic rewards for graduates are well demonstrated.

But American higher education also has its critics. As the authors of Building the Intentional University point out,

    … higher education is facing four overarching problems… students are leaving college woefully unprepared for life after graduation… college is too expensive… more than half of students don’t graduate. And even when they do, they have often been intellectually absent during much of their time in college… many qualified students around the world do not have access to a first-rate college education. American universities, for example, typically have quotas on how many non-American students they will take. (page 6)

More impressively, unlike other critics of contemporary higher education, these authors have built an institution, Minerva, that seeks to correct the flaws that they have identified. I can applaud Minerva as an “existence proof” that it is possible to create a viable alternative to the standard university as it exists today. But I am concerned that Minerva’s emphasis on a highly-designed approach might give students the misleading impression that central planning is the best form of social organization.

Minerva started from a clear vision of how students should emerge from college. This vision included four core competencies, which were:

  • • Thinking critically
  • • Thinking creatively
  • • Communicating effectively
  • • Interacting effectively (page 24)

These core competencies were then broken down into dozens of what Minerva calls “habits of mind” and “foundational concepts,” each of which is given a hashtag abbreviation.

  • Habits of mind are cognitive skills that with practice come to be triggered automatically. (page 25, emphasis in original)
  • Foundational concepts are fundamental knowledge that is broadly applicable. (page 26, emphasis in original)

Two examples of habits of mind are:

  • Understand and use the emotional tools of persuasion. #emotionalpersuasion
  • Mitigate the role of conformity in group settings. #conformity (page 387)

Two examples of foundational concepts are:

  • Apply and interpret measures of correlation; distinguish correlation and causation. #correlation (page 381)
  • Identify ways that multiple causes interact to produce complex effects #multiplecauses (page 382)

The terms “habits of mind” and “foundational concepts” are examples of what I call Minerva-speak, a language that pervades the book. Another element of Minerva-speak is “far transfer.”

    Far transfer occurs when students apply what they have learned in one context to a situation in a different time and place, one that, on the surface, does not resemble the original context. Far transfer is at the epicenter of what makes education effective. (page 51)

Another element of Minerva-speak is “active learning.”

    Active learning requires students to engage with the material, relying on such activities as debate, role-playing, and group problem-solving. Active learning leads students to comprehend and retain much more information than do lectures. (page 135)

Strong central planning

At most universities, it is up to each faculty member to design and implement a course. At Minerva, these processes are directed consciously from the center.

  • A Minerva syllabus is unusually detailed, often running to more than twenty single-spaced printed pages for a fifteen-week semester… As the author works through these details, he or she is able to discuss individual elements—everything from the overall summary of the course to the specific rubric descriptions used to evaluate student work on individual learning outcomes—with the course reviewer via discussion threads directly anchored to that element for context.
  • Once the reviewer is satisfied with the draft of the syllabus, Course Builder produces a shareable [document], which the course reviewer sends to an external reviewer for feedback, which the course author and reviewer later incorporate into the draft. (page 223)

Classes are conducted seminar style, albeit by computer conference rather than in person. Minerva uses a “radically flipped classroom,” with students expected to learn material, including what would be covered in lectures at other institutions, on their own before class. Class time is used for discussions and group problem-solving exercises that are carefully planned by the faculty in advance. Although there is room for spontaneity within these exercises, there is a lot of central control over what takes place in the classroom. Weekly meetings are held with all instructors teaching a particular course, in which they review the lesson plans to be used in advance.

Again, these lesson plans are pre-packaged and approved before the course even begins. Overall,

    … approximately 3,400 pages of curriculum were written and reviewed by a team of eight to fifteen people over the course of two years. By using such a cross-disciplinary team to develop standardized lesson plans, we further mitigated the impact of any given professor’s particular training. (page 69)

Fortunately, this work is not all carved in stone.

    Heavy reviews are likely for the first two or three iterations of a course. This was especially true of the cornerstone courses, which were subjected to deep overhaul after the first year—only about 10 percent of the material from the original courses survived (p. 186)

Minerva as a Business

Minerva comes across as a tightly-managed business, particularly in contrast with the more haphazard, self-organizing nature of most universities. Some of the more interesting differences:

  • • Minerva does not use a campus. Instead, students rotate among seven cities around the world where Minerva has residence halls.
  • • While mental health services are peripheral at the typical university, they are part of the core at Minerva.
  • • While career planning services are peripheral at the typical university, they are part of the core at Minerva.
  • • While faculty research is part of the core of many universities, it seems peripheral to Minerva. In particular, no tuition funds are diverted to support research.
  • • While cultivating key donors and catering to their wishes is part of the core of many universities, Minerva seeks to do away with this practice.
  • • While athletics and amenities are part of the core for attracting students to other universities, they are peripheral for Minerva.
  • • While typical universities use tenure to retain faculty, Minerva uses stock options.
  • • Minerva uses software developed by its own team, and the emphasis seems to be on making sure that the features most important for executing in the classroom are of highest quality. At other universities, education software is loaded with features that are at best irrelevant and at worst an impediment to teaching faculty.
  • • Minerva does not attempt to run an on-campus criminal justice system. Unlike the typical university, Minerva is willing to outsource criminal issues to local police.

The net result is that costs are lower than at other American universities. I would caution that one source of cost savings may be questionable.

    … none of our courses have laboratory sections… we firmly believe that all science majors should have authentic hands-on research experiences… This is achieved by encouraging our students to pursue summer research experiences at universities and research institutions around the world. (page 132)

Even if this approach is pedagogically adequate, its costs apparently are externalized by Minerva and borne by other institutions.

Selection Effects

“By taking only the cream, Minerva eliminates the main source of low graduation rates and poor engagement at lesser universities.”

How successful is Minerva? I think it is impossible to say, because it appears to select only the students most capable and eager to learn. By taking only the cream, Minerva eliminates the main source of low graduation rates and poor engagement at lesser universities. Thus, it cannot claim to have solved that problems of higher education generally.

Do the cream get more out of Minerva than they would elsewhere? Using results of the College Learning Assessment (CLA+), the authors write,

    Because our students performed so well at the outset, in comparison to first-year students at other universities, we had to compare them to college seniors to assess possible progress over the year. At the outset, our students were in the 94th to 95th percentile compared to seniors at other institutions. Between the fall and spring administrations of the CLA+ , our freshman students’ rank increased to the 99th percentile when compared to senior outcomes.
    Without question, this level of performance provides evidence that our cornerstone curriculum is effective. (page 249)

I am afraid that the use of the phrase “Without question” shows far transfer of #emotionalpersuasion but not of #correlation.

One of the most important sources of the discrepancy between correlation and causation is known as the “selection effect.” To me, it seems plausible that students who choose to apply to Minerva are unusually focused on learning, as opposed to dating opportunities or sports or other features that attract students to colleges. Thus, if these particularly learning-motivated students had not gone to Minerva, they might during their freshman year have made just as much progress, or more, elsewhere.

A more appropriate study would be to compare CLA+ progress in students who were accepted at Minerva but chose to go elsewhere with students at Minerva. The students who applied to Minerva but chose to go elsewhere after acceptance might plausibly be just as learning-motivated as students who elected Minerva after acceptance. If so, then this “natural experiment” could provide evidence of differences that are more plausibly causal.

As another research project, it would be helpful to study what happens to the Minerva applicants who just fail to meet the criteria for acceptance to Minerva. Do they end up attending other universities of reasonable quality? Or are they only able to attend low-quality universities, or not go to college at all? If they are unable to attend decent universities, then this suggests that having more schools like Minerva would help to increase access to higher education. But if the students who just miss Minerva’s qualifying standards nonetheless find decent alternatives, then perhaps the problem of college access is already being solved in other ways.

The Medium is the Message

By far, the best teacher I ever had was Bernard Saffran. At Swarthmore College, the Honors Program for juniors and seniors consisted of small seminars, for which students summarized and presented the week’s material. This was Swarthmore’s version of active learning, and it worked well.

Also, students were assessed by qualified examiners from other universities, or perhaps non-academic institutions. These outside examiners were shown the syllabus and then composed their own exams for Swarthmore students to take in the subject.

But Bernie’s philosophy of teaching was in some ways the opposite of Minerva’s planned and choreographed approach. Bernie’s seminars were free-form conversations. If we strayed far from the topic that we were supposed to be covering, then so be it. Bernie used to say, “Never let the material get in the way of learning.”

He also said, “Students somehow learn, even though I never seem to finish a sentence.” The conversations proceeded by one thought leading to another, rather than following a pre-set path.

If the medium is the message, then the message of Bernie’s seminars was that you can have spontaneous, emergent order. In contrast, the message of Minerva is that order comes from strong central planning.

From a libertarian point of view, I think one has to be somewhat ambivalent about the Minerva experiment. On the one hand, it is good to see experimentation and ferment in the field of higher education, which otherwise seems to be adopting new bad habits as well as retaining old ones. And there is nothing wrong with individual institutions relying on central planning, as long as it takes place in the context of an overall market in which there is competition, so that order is allowed to emerge from the process.

But the prospect of the Minerva model coming to dominate the educational ecosystem is one that I find frightening. Reading Building the Intentional University produced for me a sensation of Stepford-wife instructors producing Stepford-wife students.2

I would prefer to see higher education reform move in a different direction. I like to say that the future belongs to auto-didacts. If anything, auto-didacts could make use of an educational process that is even less formal and less centrally planned than what we see at typical universities today.

Bernie Saffran and others who have helped in my learning process would listen to questions and thoughts that I was raising and respond by suggesting articles and books to read that would interest me. That approach provides positive reinforcement and encouragement to young people who wish to think independently. And it also has the advantage of low cost and low overhead.

For many reasons, I would like to see the current model of higher education overthrown. But I hope that it is replaced by an approach that is more decentralized and emergent.


[1] Building the Intentional University: Minerva and the Future of Higher Education. Stephen M. Kosslyn and Ben Nelson, eds. MIT Press. August, 2018.

[2] For the culturally challenged, you can read about The Stepford Wives in Wikipedia.

*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

Read more of what Arnold Kling’s been reading. For more book reviews and articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.