July 22, 2021
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 fourth full and complete review of of Minerva Schools at KGI and Minerva University by WSCUC. 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.