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Ivy League gets online competitor: Snapfish CEO Ben Nelson's Minerva to join Udacity, other web startup colleges

Former Snapfish CEO Ben Nelson\'s Minerva Project will try to emulate an Ivy League education at half the Ivy League sticker price.
Former Snapfish CEO Ben Nelson\'s Minerva Project will try to emulate an Ivy League education at half the Ivy League sticker price.

Related: Stanford professor resigns, launches Udacity: Free, online, university-level computer science courses

At just 36, Ben Nelson made a name for himself running tech companies like Snapfish, a photo-sharing website, and Redbeacon, a home-maintenance site in Silicon Valley. His next project is even more ambitious: He has two years and $25 million to create an elite global university, from scratch, reports Reuters.

Nelson envisions an online school that will rival Ivy League schools. "Nelson wants to attract top students from around the world to his Minerva Project, a for-profit undergraduate college that will offer rigorous courses designed by academic superstars," Reuters reported.

Nelson has not yet set tuition, but he plans to charge the first class, entering in the fall of 2014, significantly less than $20,000 a year for an education that he says will rival the Ivy League, where Yale and Harvard charge tuition of about $38,000.

While it is going to be an online university, Minerva will charge $11,000 per year in room and board to those who opt "into NYU-like urban dorms in major metropolitan centers around the world," Fortune reported. "Students also will be encouraged to live in different dorms each year, with travel costs baked into the boarding fees."

"The only way we're going to find out what works is to do it, rather than sit there opining," David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University, told Reuters. "Bring it on."

The $25 million comes from Benchmark Capital, the largest seed round the Menlo Park, Calif., venture capital firm has ever invested in its 17-year history, according to Venture Beat and Fortune. Benchmark invested in Twitter and Zillow.

"I realized that not only did I have this view of what elite higher education should be like, there's also a dire need for additional supply," Nelson told the blog "Good Morning Silicon Valley. "... Harvard accepted 5.9 percent this year and Yale accepted under 7 percent. What about the others who are perfectly qualified?

"At Minerva, we care about two things only: Are you brilliant, and do you have potential to change the world? We don't care about where you come from or how much you can donate. (As an online school) we will have no capacity constraint; all we need to do is hire more professors. The substantial operating costs associated with each student is low."

Nelson said Minerva will serve a different market than the Khan Academy and Udacity, online education outlets that are free. Students will apply the same way they do at elite colleges and universities, and Minerva will offer many of the degrees provided by Ivy League schools. Much of the market may be international.

"Harvard says that 80-85 percent of its applicants are fully qualified for admission, yet they have a 5.9% acceptance rate," Nelson told Fast Company. "We think, conservatively, there are 250,000 English-fluent, smart, driven young people who aren't able to get into an Ivy League university or equivalent in their home countries, and if we capture 1 percent of that market, we'll be self-sustaining."

Fast Company reported that, "unlike the free, open, often self-paced online courses offered by Udacity, Coursera, Udemy, MITx, and other new ventures, Minerva will ask students to watch a pre-recorded video lecture in real time, while interacting over video chat with classmates and discussion leaders."

Nelson's initiative is part of a growing trend of disruptive innovation in education — innovation that helps create a new market and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market. Around the country entrepreneurs are experimenting with new and better ways to deliver higher education. Some examples include, Udacity, which teaches college level computer science, and Western Governors University, which allows students to receive credit for demonstrating competency as opposed to seat time.