What is Minerva?
Minerva is a private “non-profit” university that accepted its first undergraduate cohort in 2014. Minerva’s university program is taught entirely online (even before the pandemic). The central appeal of Minerva is that students travel throughout their 4 years, beginning with their first year in San Francisco and in subsequent years students spend each semester in a different city. Currently, London, Berlin, Seoul, Taipei, Hyderabad, and Buenos Aires are cities where students' are based. These are merely bases for the students to live – no teaching is conducted by institutions in these cities. Instead, Minerva students receive online classes from their (mostly US-based) professors.
Essentially, Minerva is the “I’m not like other girls” of universities. Its founder and CEO, Ben Nelson
, is fighting a personal crusade against traditional universities, with a particular disdain for the Ivy League. Minerva prides itself on having no facilities, even claiming that “top colleges and universities squander enormous sums on facilities and amenities most students never use”
. This means Minerva owns no libraries, no social spaces other than their accommodation, no laboratories. Ironically, Minerva pays for access to libraries in the cities they live in and has partnerships with some universities to allow their students to do lab work… so that their students can use these important services.
Minerva claims to be eschewing the traditional university model, marketing themselves with jargon like critical thinking, transferable skills, interdisciplinarity, and active learning. For those of you who are new to Jade Bowler (unjadedjade
), you might be wondering what the hell is this place and how the university works. While many of us are still baffled about how Minerva functions, hopefully, this wiki can shed some light on what we’ve deduced.
Note: we do not know how Jade came across Minerva. However, we have speculated that because Jade’s LinkedIn
says she is “co-developing Minerva’s global brand”
, Minerva may have approached Jade and encouraged her to apply. If she is working with Minerva for their PR, presumably she is getting some kind of discount on tuition.
A brief explanation of Minerva/Minerva Project/KGI
There’s sometimes confusion around the difference between Minerva, the Minerva Project, KGI… I’ll try to briefly explain here.
– a for-profit startup founded by Ben Nelson in 2012, funded by venture capitalists.
Minerva Schools at KGI
– the online university that is what we refer to as ‘Minerva’.
Keck Graduate Institute (KGI)
– a California-based private graduate school which is partnered with the Minerva Project.
Although Minerva Schools at KGI is described as a non-profit, we generally don’t pay much attention to that since they are ultimately closely funded by the Minerva Project which is for-profit.
Is it legit?
A common question people ask about Minerva is if it’s legit or if it’s a scam. In short: Minerva isn’t a scam in the traditional sense - students attend and pay the tuition fees. Students do receive an education and they graduate at the end with an accredited degree (more on this in a second). But the reason why you might see a lot of people refer to Minerva as a ‘scam’ in these threads is because we are dubious about the quality of education that is being delivered, and do not think it is not proportional to the fees they charge. The university preys on young, idealistic teenagers by aggressively marketing themselves as a highly selective (again, more on this in soon) and a revolutionary institution.
Now on that accreditation. Minerva is “accredited”, meaning it has been assessed by the Western Senior College and University Commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) which accredits colleges and universities in the Western United States. WASC is a legitimate accrediting body
and is recognized by the US Department of Education to certify that schools meet certain standards of academic excellence outlined by the Department. However, the way Minerva has received this accreditation is a bit convoluted: Minerva has a contractual partnership with the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), a private graduate school in California. KGI applies for accreditation
on behalf of Minerva, with Minerva treated as a ‘satellite campus’ of KGI, and degrees are ultimately issued by KGI, not
Minerva. Minerva has yet to receive accreditation independently from KGI, where presumably the standards are higher.
What can you study?
It is very difficult to get a clear understanding of how the Minerva curriculum is structured. If you peruse their ‘Majors and Courses
’ page, you’ll see their curriculum is sorted into the following majors: Arts & Humanities, Business, Computational Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences. If you go even further into the courses within these majors, the course descriptions are loaded with corporate jargon which makes it quite difficult to figure out what the courses are actually about. At the end of the four years, students are awarded a Bachelor's degree
in one of the five concentrations listed above.
Minerva’s approach is to provide a surface-level overview of many topics rather than encouraging their students to be specialists in a particular topic. For example – they have one class devoted to evolution. In a normal biology degree, you would have multiple modules on evolution across multiple years. If you're wondering, Jade, is majoring in Business with a minor in ‘cognitive neuroscience’. Keep in mind that Minerva’s teaching of neuroscience is unlikely to be anything like your typical BSc in Neuroscience – their neuroscience course is taught under their Social Sciences department and appears to be a chaotic combination of anatomy, physiology, psychology, disease, and social studies.
Minerva’s revolutionary active learning
You’ll see Minerva’s PR team (AKA their students) criticise lectures and rote learning which is supposedly rife in traditional universities. For example, their founder Ben Nelson claims that in traditional universities “students sit in a class, they’re not called upon to answer questions, or apply the content to novel contexts. A professor simply talks to them
.” He claims that Minerva’s “active learning” approach delivered through online classes offers a new, revolutionary approach to learning.
Aside from the obvious fact that traditional universities don’t just use lectures to teach – they also have classes, seminars, tutorials, workshops, field trips, and labs – it’s not clear how conducive Minerva’s classes are to learning. Minerva’s classes involve:
- Answering mini-quizzes at the start and end of each class to prove you’ve prepared for the class and listened throughout, which is included in your grade
- Your talking time is tracked and recorded and can be included in your final grade
- Anything you say or write during classes can be graded
- If you miss a class, you have 1 week to do a ‘make-up work essay’ on the class
- If you miss more than three classes you get put on academic probation
Minerva presents these classes as small, intimate classes where you have an opportunity to engage in deep discussions with professors and students. However, in at least some cases it seems that classes can be made up of 16 students or more
... which sounds like it’s verging on those lectures they hate so much, just with anxiety-inducing quizzes and questions added into the mix. Another thing you’ll often hear is how Minerva sets 2-3 assignments a week, and how difficult these assignments are. However, something that has been noted in Jade’s threads is that these assignments do not seem that rigorous, and, the quality of the work has been criticised. These include:
- An assignment where students had to design an experiment together and fill in a table explaining what the independent and dependent variables are. This is something which you learn to do at GCSE level in the UK (i.e. age 15-16).
- An assignment where students had to do a presentation on the Berlin Wall, based on a single trip to a museum and no research into the academic literature.
- An assignment where Jade had to guess the income/financials of a vegan donut shop in Berlin. Because… why?
- We aren’t sure what this assignment was about, but Jade’s essay on Yeats had actual English Literature students pulling their hair out. Highlights include her citing Wikipedia.
2% acceptance rate
In an attempt to prove how selective and special Minerva is, they have claimed their acceptance rate is 2%; or, more recently, less than 1%
. This had led to various claims from their students that Minerva is harder to get into than institutions like Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, etc.
But there’s a reason their acceptance rate is so low - it’s because Minerva counts people who didn’t even submit their application as “applicants”. Exhibit A
(additional proof they still do this as of 2021
). It seems simply registering your interest is enough for you to be included in their acceptance rate statistics. Despite this blatant fudging of the stats, Minerva students talk about this “1% acceptance” rate everywhere, even going as far to put it in their LinkedIn profiles.
Minerva is cheaper than other universities
This is a strange claim that is parroted by a lot of Minervans - that Minerva is a cheaper, more affordable option compared to attending university in the US. This might seem true on the face of it - the average tuition fees for an ‘Ivy League’ college in the US (Minerva claims many of their students turned down Ivy League offers to attend) is ~$56,000 a year, while Minerva’s tuition is a measly $14,450 a year. Seems a bargain! But these face-value numbers do not capture the non-tuition costs of Minerva and the nuances of how financial aid works in traditional universities compared to Minerva.
The annual cost of Minerva (tuition fees + maintenance e.g. accommodation, food, books) is $27,950, according to their website. Note this calculation does not include the following costs which are not detailed on their website, and are not covered by their tuition fees:
- Flights - will obviously vary depending on where the student is based. But students will be making at least 4 long-haul flights a year (to travel between cities between semesters and to travel back home), so at least $1,000 a year.
- Health insurance (approx. $1,000 a year)
- Visa applications
- Scholarship tax
Now, even factoring in those additional costs, Minerva still seems like a steal compared to Ivy Leagues. But
Ivy Leagues have extensive financial aid frameworks. For example, at Yale, 50% of students are receiving scholarships
(an average of $50,000 each), with the lowest-income students receiving pretty much full-ride scholarships. As another example, 1 in 5 Harvard students pay nothing to attend
This is not to say that no one is struggling to pay tuition fees at traditional US universities, but is to set the context for how Minerva’s “financial aid” compares to this baseline. In short, Minerva’s claim that they are inherently cheaper than other universities is disingenuous. Full details of their financial aid offerings are hard to come by, but some anecdotes from Minerva Quest, a student-run blog
, shed some light:
- It appears that Minerva’s main “financial aid” option is private loans, currently up to $22,000. Most Ivy League schools have eliminated loans, instead offering grants, scholarships, and work-study jobs, which unlike a loan are ‘no strings attached’ options. I would assume most students would not consider a private loan to be financial aid in the strictest sense of the term.
- Minerva does offer need-based scholarships, but the amount is not clear. Before low-income students can access the scholarships, they must first take out a private loan with Minerva, do a work-study program and exhaust any family contributions.
- Minerva’s “financial aid” explicitly does not cover significant costs such as flights, health insurance, applications for visas, and daily living expenses.
- Financial aid may fluctuate each year, even if a student’s household income remains the same.
- And this particularly worrying student experience: “[A student] from Europe, who believed Minerva would be more affordable but ended up accumulating significant credit card debt to make ends meet, wished Minerva’s marketing to incoming students had been more direct about the financial difficulty involved.”
Now, I’m sure there are cases where it would be cheaper to attend Minerva if you live in the US where tuition is very expensive. But it seems that it’s only cheaper if you are in a middle or upper-income bracket – if you’re low-income, you’d be better off pursuing a full-ride scholarship
(not a private loan) from a traditional US university. The idea that a low-income student could attend Minerva without experiencing financial anxieties seems to fall apart when you consider that even if all their tuition, accommodation, and living expenses are covered by Minerva, the costs of flights, health insurance, and visa applications remain - which easily build up into thousands of dollars a year.
The Minerva delusion
One of the things we talk about a lot in these threads is how the students who attend Minerva seem to have a pretty impressive superiority complex – that they’re smarter than their counterparts at other universities, that they’ve accessed a higher echelon of critical thinking. It can even seem cult-like at times. I have taken noteworthy examples of deluded Minerva students from various places on the internet:
- Minerva students have their own vernacular (that you peasants wouldn’t understand). Bonus: Minerva students are the only students to have ever grocery shopped or meal planned.
- According to this genius, having initiative is unique to Minerva students, and only Minerva students have ever run a student club, done volunteer work, or started a company while they're young.
- Our very own Jade, who has never set foot in a normal university, implies that in traditional universities you just sit in a lecture theatre and “learn by rote”
- Including this one for the lols – an anonymous account on Quora claiming to be a student at an Ivy League college says: “[Minerva students] are really fucking smart. Certainly smarter than my average classmate, and I could see that from half-hour conversations only.” Wouldn’t be surprised if Ben Nelson himself wrote this.
- Minerva's acceptance letter reads like an acceptance into a cult. They repeat the unsubstantiated claim that they are the most selective undergraduate program in the US.
Minerva students have ears like a bat – if Minerva is mentioned somewhere on the internet, even in the depths of a random Reddit thread, you can bet one of them will show up to defend the university and parrot some of these delusions. So just be aware of this if you’re wondering why a lot of the discussions about Minerva online can be overwhelmingly, obnoxiously positive.
Then why are Minerva graduates so successful?
If you have a look at Minerva graduates on LinkedIn, you’ll probably see they aren’t doing too bad for themselves and will likely be working in a flashy Silicon Valley start-up. You might think to yourself: well, maybe Minerva really is offering a top tier education that stands out to employers. There’s quite a simple answer to this: Minerva has partnerships with impressive companies that agree to accept interns from Minerva every year. A degree from Minerva can set you up for life not because you've received some kind of superior education, but because you get put into contact with companies like Uber, bypassing the usual route that you'd normally have to go down to secure an internship with a company like that. It's why nearly all Minerva grads go into the corporate world – you don't hear about students going on to do PhDs because their vague, mishmashed education is unlikely to provide them with the more specialised knowledge they need to pursue academia.
From Jade’s videos, it seems that Minerva students are guaranteed to get a prestigious internship at some point. The internships are pre-arranged, and Minerva students compete with each other to apply for them, but ultimately you will always get something. This is obviously not unique to Minerva. Many universities, particularly business-focused universities, have similar kinds of internship programmes. However, Minerva’s marketing makes it seem like their students got these internships thanks to Minerva’s incredible education, rather than it being thanks to the networking opportunities that are available due to the Minerva Project’s extensive private sector networks.
Other shady Minerva things
The Minerva Agenda
Something that is pretty clear is that Minerva’s teaching is for from objective – all of their courses seem to be taught from a neoliberal
perspective. Aside from the obvious that this is a university-funded by venture capitalists and set up by a businessman who has an axe to grind with “elite” universities, these are some other things we have picked up on that which suggest Minerva is pushing a particular ideology onto their students:
- The introduction to their Business Major says the following: “Private enterprise is the world's primary driver of wealth, employment, technological advancements, and cures for social ailments.” Sure, it’s fair to say that private enterprise is the world’s primary driver of wealth… but it’s also the primary driver of wealth inequality. It’s the latter part of this statement that is the most bizarre though – the claim that private enterprise is the cure for social ailments. There are perhaps hundreds if not thousands of papers critiquing the idea that the private sector is the solution to our social and environmental crises, and any well-rounded university course would acknowledge that private companies being the solution to everything is not a self-evident fact.
- Hints that Jade has been fed this one-sided perspective on capitalism are apparent in her videos, e.g. this video (around 16.00) where she talks about stuff she has learned at Minerva. She provides a pretty naïve, uncritical account of how private companies can fix the non-profit funding gap. Good criticisms of this perspective are in the comments of the video.
- Their classes on racism and psychology seem to revolve around the corporate workplace.
- Students are treated like products – the “work-study” option with Minerva which gives you a discount on tuition is basically just an agreement to market Minerva/be their PR during your time with them, which perhaps explains why so many Minerva students flood YouTube comments and Quora with positive stuff about the university.
tl;dr: Minerva acts like they are the last bastion of critical thinking despite not teaching key critical theories – particularly those which are critical towards capitalism.
If you’ve watched Jade’s Q&A video here
, you may have picked up on the fact that Minerva is less than accommodating to the physical and mental health of their students. e.g.
- Students are kicked out if they miss three classes, and it appears the concept of a ‘sick day’ isn’t a thing at Minerva. So if you have a long-term health condition, good luck.
- From this Quora answer. warning: another answer to this Quora question contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault. “My friend’s liver failed, and because you literally never Have To leave your room, they never encountered a human to tell them they should seek medical help.”
- During WASCA’s accreditation of Minerva, they noted: “there is evidence suggestive of the need for greater attention to student academic support as well as mental and physical health services”.
Minerva students have the option of sorting their accommodation in each rotation city via Minerva, or they can find accommodation independently. From a glance, it seems most decide to do it through Minerva, likely for ease and so that they can live with other Minerva students. It’s not exactly clear how much Minerva charges for rent because their annual bill for accommodation ($11,500) includes other charges like internet and ‘residential support services’, whatever that means. This Minerva student
proposes rent is $750 a month, so let’s go with that.
So for $750 a month, students in Minerva’s London accommodation are living in a room with three single beds
. Even for London, that’s obscene – triple rooms are very rare but where they are available, you’re not going to see prices exceed £400 PCM. For $750 (or £550) you could find a house share in London with your very own bedroom. And keep in mind the $750 is a flat fee which is charged regardless of where Minerva students are located. So even in Hyderabad, where the average rent is $200 PCM, Minerva students are presumably paying over triple that if they decide to get accommodation via their university.