March 31, 2020
Ben Nelson is an education revolutionary who is going head to head with the ivy leagues to lead the transformation of global higher education for 21st century students. Enrolling it’s first students in 2014, this innovative university has a 1.2 acceptance rate, tens of thousands of applicants from over 180 countries, and currently serves about 630 students across 7 major cities around the globe including San Francisco, London, and Taipei. While many have speculated how to reform higher ed, this entrepreneur has actually created a program using effective pedagogy, technology, and immersive experiences to equip a diverse group of students with the cognitive tools they need to succeed in the world after graduation for less than a ⅓ of the cost at an Ivy League university.
Too often when we talk about moving the world forward, we talk about lofty ideals. But lofty ideals, even when backed up with novel approaches, oftentimes don't work. You have to think about the incentive structure.
Hey everyone. Today's guest is an education revolutionary who is going head to head with the Ivy leagues to lead the transformation of global higher education for 21st century students rolling its first students in 2014 this innovative university has a 1.2 acceptance rate, tens of thousands of applicants from over 180 countries and currently serve as about 630 students across seven major cities around the globe including San Francisco, London, and Taipei. Students are not the only one with faith in his model as he's been back just North of 128 in venture capital. While many have speculated how to reform higher ed, this entrepreneur has actually created a program using the effective pedagogy, technology and immersive experiences to equip a diverse group of students with the cognitive tools they need to succeed in the world after graduation for less than a third of the cost of an Ivy league university. Yet they have no classroom facilities.
Since all classes are conducted through an active learning platform developed by the school where students participate in seminar classes of two 19 people and the results are speaking for themselves as their first class of 2019 as a 92% rate and employment or pursuing further education within just six months of graduation, not his first rodeo. Though this season, CEO spent more than 10 years at tech company Snapfish taking the company from a startup to the world's largest personal publishing service with over 42 million transactions across 22 countries and leading it sales to HP for 300 million as education visionary as it had over 10 billion media impressions and been featured in one of the most prestigious media outlets including the New York times, CNBC, wall street journal times magazine, inked Forbes, and the Chronicle of higher education published by the MIT press. He has shared a 400 page blueprint for transforming higher ed and his book building the intentional university Minerva and the future of higher education. I'm honored to welcome the founder, chairman and CEO Minerva and a man who is changing the course of history because he paid attention in his history class. Ben Nelson, thank you so much for having me and I thank you for that wonderful introduction. Absolutely. Benbow I'd like to start back when you were at U Penn and you were kind of noticing things in your own education and kind of getting lit up to, maybe this can be different, what was going on during that time?
Well, well, what was interesting for me as I was going through, and my, my parents are, are academics, but they're scientists that were trained in Israel and the non American university system is very task oriented, right? You go to school and you study one subject and that's all you study. There's no concept of breaths or what we refer to as the liberal arts education. And so when I went to college in at Penn, I didn't really have much of a grasp of what a liberal arts education was. And it turned out that almost no one I went to school with knew what liberal arts education. In fact, if any of your listeners were to take a second and ask themselves what is the definition of liberal arts? And you know, sometimes people will think, Oh well that I guess that means art or humanities poetry.
And there's this kind of assumption that the liberal arts means stuff that isn't useful, right? That is a knowledge for knowledge's sake people off a year. Well, it turns out that it's actually the antithesis of the liberal arts. The liberal arts, the, the, the term itself comes from enlightenment period view of the education of ancient Rome of the Roman Republic, the short era in Rome when the citizens were in franchised. And the idea was that in the Roman Republic, because the citizens were sovereign themselves, they didn't serve the King or a church, they were governing their self governing. They were finding people to represent their interests. That population therefore needed to know more than a trade up. Because you know, if you are basically designing a bridge for the sake of the King, okay, learn how to build a bridge. You don't need to learn anything else cause all for your entire life is building bridges.
That's fine. But if you actually have to say, wait a second, I have to decide who will represent my best interests and in a more extreme scenario, I may be called on to be the person that represents the best interest of my fellow citizens. All the sudden just knowing how to build a bridge isn't enough. You actually had to be trained in the disciplines or arts that allowed you to be free or have Liberty. And that is the source of the word, the liberal arts. It's what our Benjamin Franklin called practical knowledge or Thomas Jefferson called useful knowledge that you could use to enfranchise yourself to be free. Definitely Liberty.
And how is this applying to the 21st century?
Well, the remarkable thing is that no matter what your form of government, the basic insight that the founding fathers had 250 years ago and potentially the Romans had 2000 years ago, was that learning a thing and pursuing it for the rest of your life is not the model for a modern world and you could be living under a, an oppressive dictatorship, but still the likelihood that the job you will have at 25 will be similar to the job you have at 65 is very, very low. Yeah. And so the greatness of the philosophy behind the liberal arts education is that it is the education that every citizen in the world should have today. The problem is when I was at Penn, I realized universities aren't teaching it. They're not actually providing a set of systematic tools, cognitive tools that people can deploy to anything that they pursue. Instead they were just disseminating information except rather than disseminating information only about one field in depth, Hey, there's only information on one field and pseudo depth and then just kind of a Chinese buffet other, you know, edutainment that you take courses that you're related to. But ultimately there was no coherent track of intellectual development at universities. And given that the entire representative Republic in which we live is based on universities actually doing that. I figured that that's a problem.
Mmm. Yeah. Well, before you started working on maneuver, you spent nearly a decade at Snapfish. Why the break in that initial spark that you had and then what made you change your mind and come back to education?
Well, so for four years as an undergrad, I, you know, I got this kind of lightning bolt moment my first semester of freshman year. And so I had the rest of my time as an undergrad to do something about this and to fix Penn and change, you know, the curriculum and get universities to commit to provide, you know, direct benefit to society by training students to be systematic thinkers. And all the rest and nobody cared. I no one disagreed. There was no, there was no pushback that says, Oh yes, you know, that's a bad goal for the university or Oh yeah. Obviously, you know, the curricular structure that we have is really suboptimal and you know, the one that you proposing is clearly better, but yeah, no, we're a city and we don't really fundamentally care. You know, where, you know, the students are here not to study, right.
How do we get out of class requirements and things like that. How do we not show up to lecture? How do we go and have fun? The professors are there to do research and certainly not to teach. There are, none of the incentives are there and the administration was there to kind of raise money and keep the wheels on the bus. And it's not to say that anyone individually didn't have that kind of perspective, but somehow in the collective, there was this assumption that no one would actually want to work harder. Right. And you had professors who were passionate about teaching and really cared about their students, but they were always said, well, you know, but the majority of my colleagues don't. And so it's just never going to go anywhere. So after banging my head against the wall for four years and failing to have any substantive reform, I gave up, what can I do?
There's nothing that, that I can actually do. I can't move this immutable organization. So I went out into the working world and there was the Dawn of the commercial internet. And I started working in various kind of internet and communications arenas. Eventually got to stop fish, eventually became the CEO, ran it, et cetera. And when I was there for a decade and figured I did everything I wanted to do within that context, and I was thinking about what to do next, I was actually writing my, you know, announcement speech. It was our 10th anniversary and all of our employees would, from all over the world. And myself and the last cofounder of, of the company we both kind of had a packed to leave together as opposed to separately. And so we were going to make this big announcement. No one knew it was, it was kind of a big surprise and it was always kind of writing this speech. I was thinking about, well, you know, how do I summarize this really isn't about him and me. It was about, you know, the 10 years and the achievements we've had and all the rest. So I was thinking about, okay, how do I summarize the past 10 years and you know, the milestones and the big deals and you know, all of that stuff.
And as I was reflecting on those 10 years, I had this horrific realization, which was, you know, the, the 10 years I was at, it's not fish from the beginning until when I left covered nine, 11, the dotcom bubble kind of the giant recession afterwards, their Iraq war, the housing crash of 2008. And later about that. I mean, the web 2.0 bubble in between was it was an, it started, of course, the initial internet bubble. It, we saw everything, right? It was, it was an unbelievable witness to history and participant in history during that period of time. Yet all of the things that came to my mind were things that had nothing to do with the core business. You know, when one of our employees, you know, told me that she has breast cancer and I have to react to that on the fly.
And when we were sending an email to residents in new Orleans after Katrina and letting them know that there's their photos are safe and that we would, you know, send them a free set of prints, you know and getting emails back saying that those prints will be the only possession that they have remaining, you know? And so things that we didn't set up the organization to do that, but it's kind of the horrific realization was that if at any point in our history we would have taking the wrong term and gone bankrupt [inaudible] the world would be exactly the same. If we fail, some other photo company would have succeeded and taken our market share. And there you go. Right. And [inaudible] as much as I learned and as much as I enjoyed my time it's that fish working with my colleagues and you know, business partners and suppliers and vendors, I said to myself, I'm never doing this again.
I'm not spending another decade of my life, especially if I'm lucky enough to have this kind of success and doing it to sell widgets. It just doesn't make any sense. And that's when I effectively, I thought about, okay, well what, what can I actually contribute to the world? And when I looked at kind of the major problems of the world that I don't know anything about energy, I don't know. You know, I'm not a doctor. I can't really go and help in a health perspective. I said, but you know, I had a very clear idea about what education should look like and people with, you know, PhD's and senior administrators all said, yeah, you know, this is a much clearer way of looking at the world than we are. So I should probably do that. And that's, that's how it started.
Yeah. So after that, I mean, you took five years to get, you know, murderer Minerva from idea to paying students. How did you develop that MVP and get its first students through the door?
Yeah, that's actually one of the strange I mean, Minerva strange in many, many ways, right? But okay, the MVP for Minerva was going take the lives of 18 year olds and provide them a four year undergraduate education and for them to turn down other opportunities that Ivy diversity's and top universities around the world to do that. And so unlike, you know, the, the Silicon Valley mantra of, Oh yeah, you know, just lodge crap and figure it out. We had to on day one, be by an order of magnitude, the best education known to man, right. And then iterate from that basis. And so the reason that we spent five years, right, doing two years of effectively solo ideation and feedback, two years of having the entire team build the process. And then another year of having a pilot class that came in for free and tested all of these theories is we just couldn't launch anything but comparatively excellent.
Now, today, obviously we've, we believe that the of education is vastly superior to the education we were offering five years ago. But compared to the rest of higher education, we knew that the education that our students were getting was faster, superior to anything that they could get anywhere else. And so that's, that's obviously one of the different pathways that we took in Minerva compared to the other startups. My nervous seems to have two missions, two big missions point, reinventing what higher education looks like and then to laying out a model for other institutions to follow. What is it that really lights you up about these missions to get them out there? Well, the overarching, unifying mission of everything that we do is nurturing critical wisdom for the sake of the world. Our, our perspective is that wisdom is not some mystical thing that comes down from a foggy mountain.
Wisdom is very simply the appropriate application of practical knowledge to novel situations. Right? If you're encountering something you've encountered before and you know what to do because you've done it before, that's memory. That's not wisdom, right? The whole point of a wise person is that they're encountering something they've never encountered before. Yet they still have a good idea as to how to deal with that situation and if there's anything that is necessary for humanity to move forward, it is that skill, right? Information can be obtained anywhere. Yeah, we need to do go anything. You can read textbooks, you can see, you know, free courses online. You can do an entire major in any subject on the planet without ever even having to leave your home. And you can actually compare it and far better than a university can curated for you anymore. But the process of developing your intellect to be able to deploy various methods of thinking to certain issues, it's something that you have to do in a social environment.
You have to have a group of peers struggling with you to figure out those components and an expert that leads your intellectual development in that process. That sounds a lot like what educational institutions are set up to do. Right? And so the idea of nurturing critical wisdom for the sake of the world means that you, you have to create a model that actually delivers that kind of education. But then if you actually want to have global impact, you can't, as one instance of it, teach everyone, it's, it's impossible. Not only is it impossible, it's also bad for humanity as, as, as bad as having you know, no wisdom. There, the other extreme is to have the same wisdom taught to everyone, a way of thinking that everyone knows. And that's it. And so what you want is you want a hetero culture in education.
You want different institutions having their own perspective on what was the is, but not having their own take on the facts of how to actually get that into somebody's head. Right? Because there is a science of learning. It is, it is not a, you know, you know, a feeling of learning. It's not like, Oh, I feel like I learn differently visually versus other than, cause that's just not true. There is no such thing as learning differences that has been proven by the science of learning, right? You want to do deep processing? No. Unless you have kind of extreme learning conditions, right? Sometimes people have photographic memories. Sometimes people have profound learning disabilities. That's a force extremes. But for the vast majority of humanity, if you get somebody to deep process, they learn far better than just listening and absorbing, trying to absorb information, right? And so there are techniques that we've developed that you can plug any kind of philosophy of wisdom into, right. But then that ensures that students are exposed to the tools that you curated for them. And so that's really the goal. That was the unifying mission is that the world is better if it is wiser. And the only way to get wisdom spreads throughout is to embrace the institutions that are already reaching students and help reform them as opposed to disrupt them.
Hmm. At Minerva, you guys, rather than focus on like a cannon curriculum of knowledge, you really focus on teaching Medis skills and what you called practical knowledge. So how is this practical knowledge more useful than say, teaching, you know, a curriculum that everyone should know?
Right? Well, 300 years ago, teaching you kind of the full body of knowledge known in humanity is, was but not that hard, right? I mean, if you think about almost anything we think about today, you know, science, math you know, social sciences, et cetera, back, you know, in the era of enlightenment, it was all referred to as philosophy, right? It was, it was one effectively kind of unifying field, right? And there was a lot of mistakes, right? A lot of things that they were taught as truths that we didn't know. And, and when there was the Dawn of the, the enlightenment and the scientific method and, and you know, it, but it wasn't the worst form in the world to just teach you everything right? Today, that's literally impossible. I mean, it's not even close to possible. You can't even figure out a best of, right.
Especially because from what perspective, from what culture, you know, it's, it really is, it's an a possibility. However, there is no cultural view of what is a fact versus a claim. There are different folks who will, you know, argue that certain claims are true, but the fact that they are a claim as opposed to a fact is something that anyone across any culture can distinguish, right? Understanding what audience you're talking to and tailoring your message accordingly. Obviously varies in the way that you tailor it depending on culture or background. But the process of being conscious that you're speaking to an audience is culturally irrespective, right? So there are tools or cognitive tools and no matter what cultural context, no matter what field of study, no matter what environmental condition, those cognitive tools should be brought to bear. And that is ultimately a finite set of tools, something that can be taught and that is applied to anything, not just field of study, but also situational. Transfer meaning that you learn something in one context and are able to transfer that, use that tool to another context and other words, wisdom.
And you guys don't just stand up front, teach this into a class, but rather you have them apply this in class. So they're constantly building the skill and using it in different contexts to build that muscle.
Exactly. And, and you know, the, the easy way to understand why think back to when you were growing up and a parent or a grandparent was you know, came to you and told you, you know, you shouldn't do X. How many times did you say, Oh, wow, you're older and wiser. I should listen to you and do that.
No, no. We had to learn ourselves
Ourselves. Right. It was an, in fact, even, you know, now, you know, as adults, oftentimes we are, we're approached by other adults that we respect and think, Oh wow, they're wise. And they say, Oh, do something that you don't normally want to do. And you're like, yeah, thanks old, man. I'll, I'll just do it my own way. And then you learn, right? And so the concept of passing on nuggets of wisdom and that, you know, isn't education doesn't work. You know, I had a student ask me once, I said, well, why can't I just read a book with all the habits and concepts and then I'll have a Minerva education? I said, well, because you're, you're not going to know how to apply them, right? It's one thing to say, understand who your audience is and tailor your message accordingly. It's another thing to actually apply it, right?
When you're writing an email and you're asking a question, getting into the habit of saying, you know what? What if somebody were to receive that email, how would they feel impacted? By the way I phrase that question, would they read not the tone that's in my mind as I type it, but could they read a hostile tone? Is there a word choice that I can change in order to make sure they don't do that? People don't do that. That's not something that is, that is natural for us. Right? And so you have to actually practice that and get feedback, right? Because you say, Oh, I now wrote a great message, but then somebody else looks at it and says, boy, that's not how it made me feel. I found that message should be disrespectful. You may be shocked to find that out. Right? And so that process of dealing with the realities of applications of these tools requires feedback.
It requires an educational setting. And so that's really the big difference between being passive recipients versus active applicants with directed intellectual development, which is also different than the way we normally acquire wisdom, which is just by trial and error, right? Living. And then we usually, you know, if the people attain, attain wisdom, it's usually much later on in life. It, when their productive lives are perhaps behind them. And so the idea is, imagine if you had the collective wisdom of humanity and found a way to effectively deliver it to young people. How much better would this world be? Right? Right. You guys are, you know,
Effectively equipping these students with these skills across a variety of contexts. How are you helping them to determine maybe which contexts they're most passionate about? Applying those skills there.
Yeah. So one of the nice things about having a conceptually based core curriculum, right where you learning these habits of mind and foundational concepts is that you need content to contextualize them. Yet if you choose one field of content or if you say, I'm going to teach you all of these things about, you know, world history or, or you know, or biology or some field, then students won't be able to the brain, the human brain is not able to take those lessons from that one field and then recontextualize it in another, you may teach somebody how to think critically about history, but when it comes to them having to think critically about making a home purchase decision or which politician to support, it actually start to fall apart, right? The book, you know how to naturally do that. And so in order to actually teach transferable skills, you have to contextualize them in many different ways.
I'm will Tanium right? So when we talk about thinking about your audience, you know, it's kind of natural to think about it. Like you and I are talking too, right? Which is you and I are having a conversation, a different way of thinking about audiences, not necessarily you as my audience, but the audience of the people who are listening to you, right? Another way of thinking about audience is the question. The example I gave written communication, which is very different because there's no intonation right now. An even more a dramatic finger way of thinking about audiences, thinking about biological audience. So how are people wired to react to the way you look, for example, right? So actually how you dress, how you project yourself. That also is an application of audience, right? So now you know, when you've given these types of examples, and again, I'm just speaking them, but when you actually practice them and think about them and apply them yourself, now you've got a much broader understanding of audience.
So why is this relevant? Because the content that we use within Minerva to illustrate these habits and concepts draws from all of the majors and concentrations that we then teach. So our students in their first year not only learn these tools, but they sample all of the types of content areas that we then offer. And then in the sophomore year, they get to choose from a limited set of courses that cover more specific concepts, but ones that also traverse a number of fields. And so the, the always are making informed choice as they go through their four years, until the fourth year when much of the education is personalized to the student and where they learn a deep understanding of a particular niche area that they're interested in. They do a capstone, they do practicals we create tutorials that cater to student's particular interests et cetera. Yeah. And you guys kind of start like
A lot of handhold support in the beginning, but as they get closer towards that capstone, like they can start creating their own courses towards the end there. So really making that informed decision, but having the support to do so before getting to that point. Exactly right. How are you guys measuring the effectiveness of the education after they've graduated? So you guys just had 2019 graduate. How has that been going?
Incredibly well. So, you know, we, we always tell our students that there are two measures to, to the success. Number one is are they capable of pursuing what they're interested in pursuing, not what we institutionally drive them towards right. At a level above that of Ivy league graduates. And then as they pursue that field, do is there a trajectory tracking ahead of those from other backgrounds? Right. And so the second, of course in some regards it takes time to to measure, right, that we have some early indicators that are positive in that regard. But the first one we've obviously already seen and when you look at their graduate school placements, which is kind of a very simple measure all the way to the kinds of jobs that they've been pursuing, the kinds of positions they were getting, sometimes ones that aren't available to people who haven't, who graduated 10 years prior to from college. The impact is dramatic. And the best part is when our students
And a comeback or, or send us an email and say, Oh my God, you wouldn't believe what my boss just said, or you know, or the reaction. And it is about, wow, how did you know how to use these skills? You know, how do you solve that problem? Or how did you know how to actually address this context you've never been in before? And that's extremely gratifying because when you are teaching a, or creating an educational environment, which they're supposed to be learning things that are practical that they should be using in the real world, and then the real world comes back and says, indeed, they'd look at you. It's a, we obviously had indicators throughout, we track their learning progress, et cetera, but there's nothing better than, than reality to, to demonstrate that.
Yeah, absolutely. That's a, that's amazing. Many people go to the Ivy leagues for the brand name education around that. And I think some employers even kind of use that as a pre-screen of those students. What is the value of brand and prescreening students? And then how is ms nervous? Stablish
Yeah. So I, you know, there is a, a large misconception among the, about the higher education brands and what they mean before Minerva. I think there are really only two kinds of higher education brands. There was the neutral brand and a negative brand, right? So the neutral brand are, you know, the Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge of the world, very, very small number of institutions. Even half the IVs, I wouldn't consider it to be neutral, right? And neutral means, okay, you went to a great university, I will, you know, give you a shot to prove whether or not you are indeed smart or daddy bought your way in, or you threw a ball over the fence. And, and, and you know, if you aren't just high school smart but actually have matured and can think, you know, systematically, right? So as an example, when, when I was an undergraduate, I went to the Wharton school of business, you know, the number one undergraduate business program in the world with no competition whatsoever, right?
Yet myself and almost all of my friends at work were rejected by an order of magnitude more jobs that we applied for than the ones we got. And so the brand was neutral, right? It was actually the result of the brand was not that great. I mean many of the of the companies I dropped my resume for wouldn't even interview me. So it's not like I got 70 interviews and you know, got two or three job offers. I dropped my resume and 70 different companies and I got, you know, a dozen interviews and then got two or three job offers. And so the, the brand itself was very, very neutral. Right. In that regard, it didn't put me over the fence. Then there is the negative Brown a brand, right? So if a student says, okay, and we went to a university that is lower ranked or you know, that isn't, you know, the number one program and it's, and it's, it says the first thing it goes through recruiter's mind is what's wrong with you?
Right? Why didn't you go to the better program? Right? And so, and again, it's not conscious, right? It's subconscious, but there is a signal that comes out, right? Why did you go to the, you know, 23rd rank school, not the top ranked school. Ah, that's, there's a flag. Minerva tries to change that. And we tried to create and I think we've now succeeded at creating a positive brand in higher education. So not only is are we the most selective university in the United States and therefore there isn't the concept of you could have done better coming in, but more importantly, you know that during your time at Minerva, through your education, your global rotation, the nature of the student body around the experiences you, you will have, you're actually developing and growing in ways that employers care about and the way that graduate schools care about.
You're a deeper and more systematic thinker. And so when people know about Minerva and of course job is to disseminate the knowledge of Minerva more broadly so that people recognize the brand more. But when people know about Minerva, the immediate association is, Oh wow, I want to talk to that student. Right? That's a positive brand and that's something which I hope other universities will do. Right? Especially those that right now have that may in many cases unfair stigma, right? Why is it that you went to Brown and not to Yale splits wrong. And so there is, you know, which is totally unfair, but it's natural. It's just how human beings react. Right? How much better would it be for Brown to say, no, no, no, no, no. Yeah, they could have gone to Yale, but they chose to come to Brown because we teach systematic methods of thinking before we let our students choose what they want to study. Content wise. Boy, is that impactful?
Yeah. what about the accreditation side? So you guys partnered with KGI KGI to get your accreditation. What's the value of that? And then is there a way for education institutions to sidestep the accreditation? Yeah, so
I don't think so in a broad sense. I think there are ways, you know, if you really are you know, you know, the bootcamps and things like that, I'm going to take you for six to 12 months and train you to do a very specific job with a very specific skill. And that's what you want to do. And then when you want to change jobs, just go back to a different bootcamp. That's fine. Right? I mean, that's, that's a way, but for the general population, it doesn't work. And, and I'll tell you the statistic that I think that, that highlighted it for me. If you take a hundred 17 year olds who tell you that they're going to be doctors, right? They're going to university, they're going to be premed, right? And all the rest. How many of those hundred do you think will be practicing physicians?
[Inaudible] And by the end, probably not many. Five.
All right. Wow. Right now, if you don't go to an accredited undergraduate, your university, you can't get into medical school and get into medical school. You can't be a doctor, right? Can't pass your boards, et cetera. And so if 20 times the number of doctors think that they must go to an accredited institution, right. As undergraduates, and I don't know the ratio for lawyers, but I'm sure it's similar, right? I don't know the ratio for dentists and veterinarians and things like that. I'm sure that's similar, right? What happens is that you have this mass, a belief that is not going to change that you need have not just an education but a license. Right? And as long as there is the license, Raj, there will be the university, right? And by the way, licensure is pretty important, right? Maybe it's not important for you to be you know, cutting hair.
I don't really care if, you know people are licensed in order to cut my hair. I'm perfectly happy with them just learning on the job. Right. but for sure, if somebody, you know, cutting my body open on my hair, they better be highly licensed, the highly observed. Right? And so, and so, you know, the system as it is, exists for a reason and it's not a bad system to do that. Right? But [inaudible] so you do have to, if you want to have systematic change, you have to work from within the system. If you want to have, you know, a niche spot thing, then sure. You know, do it, do it on the side. And by the way, this is why, you know, it's, I actually one of the least covered stories in education, which I find bizarre, but you know, when the McCray's started eight years ago and everybody was saying, Oh, we're going to democratize education and they're going to, you know, give everyone degrees for, give her an education without degrees and all the rest, none of that came to pass.
It takes MOOCs who gets certificates, people with college degrees, right? Because you know, and they're the ones that are, that are actually paying for these certificates, right? Because they already have the license. So you know, if they want to actually learn something, vision, go for it. But the 17 year olds that, that are deciding, should I do this versus that, it would be pretty stupid, right. To to go and spend, let's assume four years of your time and effort. And then at the end, not get an actual credential, right? You might as well actually go and and get and get the degree. And so, you know, it's, it's, it's not a well set up for that or society is not well set up to disrupt that world.
One aspect that's still remains kind of challenging for Minerva is providing financial support for, you know, large part of the student body. How have you guys been approaching that?
Well, it's incredibly difficult, right? So we, we believe that there are four parties that are responsible for the [inaudible] access to education, right? And I guess government is a fifth, but that's kind of a separate issue. Especially because, yeah, there's guys at Minerva, our students come from so many different government backgrounds, right? Because we're majority international, 60 different countries, et cetera. So the most important party is the university. And that's actually something that is completely left out of any conversations of, of financial aid. The university has always this, you know, do good bystander, right? And all of a sudden government needs to make college free and parents have to pay or you know, kids have to work and all the rest. But no, it actually starts with the institution, the institutions. It has the most important responsibility, which is to keep costs as low as humanly possible while delivering the best possible education.
What does that mean when it comes to the intellectual development of the student? You highly focus on that opportunity you spend whatever money it takes to provide the best possible education and then you don't spend a dime doing anything else because we know when you spend a dime building or maintaining Gothic buildings and libraries that are empty all the time and sports facilities and lawns and statues and fancy faculty offices, you were basically taking money away from society and you're reducing access, right? And so the first thing and the most important is the university has to be affordable. And the Nerva, you know, outside of the cost of being alive room and board, right? Cause you have to live somewhere, need something, right? Minerva's tuition and fees are, is $15,950. Right? Altogether, that's now a quarter of the tuition and fees of some private institutions and 100% of our, our classes as we were the 20 students.
No university in the country can say that. Right? And so we, we, we spend more to educate students than anybody else, but our cost of the entire program is a fraction because we don't waste money on things that are not necessary. So that's responsibility, number one. Then my responsibility is on the student themselves. The students are the ones that are benefiting from their education. Right. And you know, that means that if a student can't quite afford the institution taking a small loan, right? If you graduated something that you can pay off in two or three years after you graduate, that's fine. That's good. That shows that the student themselves comes in and is willing to have a little bit of sacrifice. And it's not just an entitlement, Oh, I deserve this. Right. Just give it to me. No, you know what? It's my education. I'm bettering myself.
I will take some financial responsibility, not one that will change the trajectory of the kinds of jobs that I take, not ones that'll burden me, but ones where I demonstrate, you know what, I will make a sacrifice. I will do that and potentially also work right while I'm studying and pay off some of my living expenses myself. Right? And so, you know, we facilitate loans and work for our students. It's not necessarily that we would expect them to find their own jobs, right? We take that responsibility. Sometimes students don't have access to loans, so we have to make sure that we provide that. But it's an important component. The third responsible party, of course, is the family. You have children, you make a commitment. Your commitment is to actually take care of them. And so the, you know, we, we get a lot of students coming in whose parents have plenty of money but they opt not to want to pay.
They say, well, can't you pay for our students? And the answer is go pound sand. I'm under no circumstance. If a family has a can afford to pay for their children's education, should a poor family be further burdened to help subsidize that? That is the most regressive idea, which is actually what's so funny because so much of the free college of you know, thinking comes from quote unquote Progressive's which makes no sides. It's the most regressive policy. You could probably, you could possibly do take money from poor people, all of whom pay some form of tax. They give it to people. It makes no sense. Didn't completely bonkers. And then there is the broader, broader societal responsibility, right? Once the institution does what it can, once a student has some skin in the game, once parents contribute what they can afford to contribute, right then it is the role of society and you know, mostly that comes in the form of philanthropy, right?
And that, so the difficulty that we are facing isn't it in the first three, we're super efficient. Our students work and have personal responsibility. Their families do contribute whatever they can because that is required. The difficulty is that we have nerve are humanists. We don't look at someone based on the color of their skin or their ethnicity or geography or gender or anything else. We believe that if you provide a human with wisdom, what they will do will be good for the world. I don't care if that wisdom is deployed in a town in Kosovo. Kosovo is more prosperous. That is better for me in San Francisco. Right? That perspective [inaudible] is close to extinct in today's world. Find finding a philanthropist that actually believes that humanity needs to be an immature as opposed to their country, their town, their community, some, you know, random community halfway around the world that they feel sorry for. Right?
They're very, very, very few individuals that deploy there resources for global systematic change. Very few. And that's our biggest challenge. Now. We're extremely fortunate that we have, you know, already found three extraordinarily generous donors that together have funded more than $30 million worth of scholarships for our students. And that's really wonderful. But we'd probably have to find you know, another three that can, that can that can fund another 35 million beyond that, before the institution could live off of the endowment that we've, we've tried to build for it in perpetuity. And so that is a struggle and it's a struggle not because anybody who knows Minerva doesn't think we're providing the best education in the world or doesn't love the fact that we bring students from all over and they're much more socioeconomically diverse than a typical, a highly selective university. But when push comes to shove and someone is thinking, let me give higher education money, it's easier for people to give $100 million to build a building that a university doesn't need than to $10 million that will then go directly to students. We don't need any institutional support. Right. And we'll allow them to access that education because they come from countries they, that are not top of mind for for the donor.
Yeah. Actually putting the money towards the students, their education, their success rather than, you know, putting an under building. Except it's very hard to, for the, like the person donating to see that ROI, like in perspective if the students are unable to fully pay for their education, how will Minerva make profits going forth in the future? Is [inaudible] profits from the business side, the project Minerva project? Correct. Supporting that.
Right. So, so Minerva is two different entities, right? There's the Minova university, the Minerva schools at KGI and the university is a nonprofit. So there's no profit motive for the university. The university actually has the licenses for all of the curriculum and technology gifted to it by the corporation. And then there is the corporation that built the learning environment. All of our students take their classes via live video as opposed to in physical classrooms that lets us actually guide their applications of these 80 habits and concepts that they learn across all of their classes, make sure that they're fully active and participating. And so the corporation is then makes money not from, you know, the university that is nonprofit that we set up, but by actually licensing this system to other educational institutions around the world. Right. And so it's a separate, you know, entity, but it but it, it creates, it's effectively the financial aid policy of the nonprofit has no bearing on the corporation.
You mentioned quite a bit about Minerva trying to influence the other institutions or kind of be a model for other institutions. If you were to start over today as a founder, where would you start
As a founder of Minerva or as a founder of something else,
Of a, a founder of an education institution?
So I mean, I think probably the most remarkable thing about our journey at Minerva is that if you and I were having this conversation nine years ago and whenever was still a figment of my imagination, I would be able to describe 85 to 90% of Minerva as it is today. The, and this is kind of related to that first conversation we had about the MVP launch, right? Minerva isn't an experiment, right? It isn't an application of science. We know what works and we designed an institution knowing ahead of time, it will work. Not to say, Oh well we hope it will work. Right? And so if I were to start my nerve over again, I would basically be Minerva as it is today. There wouldn't be much many changes to it. If somebody else is thinking about starting a, an educational institution, the most important thing to do, just start with purpose.
What is it that you're trying to achieve? We started with a purpose of nurturing critical wisdom for the sake of the world. Perhaps it wasn't phrased as beautifully nine years ago. It was the same concept. It was the idea that wisdom stop. You have to Critica our our motto, which I already had back then was the core of hour mission. Hmm. And so once you have that guiding light, all of the decisions that you make will become very apparent, right? So if a traditional university exists, as any university president will tell you to create and disseminate knowledge, right? This is effectively the [inaudible] printing press perspective of the university. Well, that is what you're going to be centered on. Creation, research and dissemination, publication teaching or lecturing of knowledge, right? [inaudible]
It is hard to commit to reform so long as you cling to that purpose. But if you find a different purpose, all of a sudden you can say, well, here is the ship that I'm sailing and they may take a while to turn its direction, but if I know that the Northern star is actually over there as opposed to over here, you'll move. When you start something from scratch, the beauty is you're building a ship to begin with. As long as you're sailing towards that purpose and every decision you make has fidelity to that purpose, right? You don't compromise. If you are fortunate enough to be able to pursue your mission, it will work out well. And that's perhaps the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur. When I, when I started in the world of of, of startups, I was always afraid to be an entrepreneur. I always came in after somebody else started it. They had the idea. And I kind of came in a little bit after and kind of helped grow it.
And I met an entrepreneur many years ago who told me that an entrepreneur, the definition of an entrepreneur is someone who is perfectly willing to fail. And in my journey working for other people, I was never willing to fail. I wanted to avoid it like the plague. Right? I was, you know you know, and when I wasn't a startup that didn't, that didn't work out, it was devastating. And when I was at Snapfish, you know, when we had so many existential things, it was come hell or high water by sheer force of will and power, we will not let this go down. We are going to, you know, change course, do everything, compromise everything that is necessary to compromise. We're going to continue to live when you pursue pursue purpose.
All of a sudden, I understood what that person meant because before, when I felt like I have responsibility for my employees, if we shut down, they're out of a job. Right? And that's the worst thing I could possibly think of. Right. Right? And in the context of most organizations, that's true, you have a responsibility to your employees, to your customers, et cetera. And that's what's primary in your mind. When you're purpose-driven, when you see a reality that has to be changed in the world and all of a sudden you say, well, I want that reality to be true.
If the direction of the organization, the vehicle to achieve that reality is compromised, right? For the sake of the survival of the organization. What's the point of being in the organization? Right? What's the point of the organization's survival? And so throughout the journey at Minerva, I had many times when people told me, you're putting this organization at risk, we won't launch, we won't get accreditation. You know, we won't get our funding. Right. Compromise, compromise, compromise. I would never allow that to happen because I would rather not launch. I would rather not even have Minerva. If Minerva was not nurturing critical wisdom for the sake of the way it was, you know, nurturing, you know, good thoughts for the sake of the world. Right? Or, you know, kind of like, you know, jumping up and down and talking about critical wisdom for the sake of the world or you know, nurturing critical wisdom for the sake of, you know, the organization.
Like that's not who we are. And so having that maniacal uncompromising focus means that the likelihood that you will get out of the gate perhaps is maybe a little bit lower, even though I would argue it could be higher, but that when you're out of the gate, you have got the thing that you wanted to have, not some Frankenstein version of it. Well, before I get to my last question, where can everybody find more about you and Minerva? Finding out how AMI is not relevant, but you can find out above the email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org. Awesome. Well, my last question is how can we push the world to evolve? Pushing the world to evolve is not easy, but I believe that the answer is an incentives. Humanity is not just humanity. You know, living beings are incentive reaction machines, right? So far as the incentive is to do X, it doesn't matter what we exhort and and, and talk about people will do the opposite.
You know, there is this saying that or belief that democracies don't go to war with one another, right? That if you look at it historically that when you look at conflict, it was almost always a conflict between institutions or countries that were not fundamentally democratic on both sides. And then as soon as you have democracy on both sides, there really is no war. And now that's not 100% true, but I think it is largely makes sense and I would add it certainly we have no evidence that democracies that trade with one another go to war. Why? Because of incentives, right? If your society is isolated, right? And you have the ability to to gain more resources by fighting with your neighbor and grabbing some stuff, well, it's hard to resist that incentive, right? But if your prosperity is tied to their prosperity, the likelihood that you will try to grabs things from them, even if you may get more.
But the risk of getting less doesn't make sense. The incentive isn't. There is a too often when we talk about moving the world forward, we talk about lofty ideals, but a lot of the ideals, even when backed up with novel approaches, right? Oftentimes don't work. You have to think about the incentive structure. If you want to reform global higher education, it's not enough to build the best university in the world. You have to build the best university in the world. That is also the most prestigious because prestige is actually what drives higher education to change, right? So you have to both understand the motivating factors and the path to progress.
Well, wonderful. Ben, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. I appreciate everything that you have shared
Pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Brandon is an entrepreneur, certified professional coach, and podcast host.
His aim is to evolve the individual through education, entertainment, and philosophy so together we can ask the world's biggest questions, build businesses to solve them, & live fulfilling lives in the process.
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