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Entrepreneur starts his version of Harvard, tuition-free

Minerva founder Ben Nelson is pictured at the Minerva Project headquarters in San Francisco in this August 2013 handout photo released to Re
Minerva founder Ben Nelson is pictured at the Minerva Project headquarters in San Francisco in this August 2013 handout photo released to Re

By Sarah McBride

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Minerva Schools of KGI doesn't yet have accreditation, a campus or even a full faculty roster, but it is offering something even Harvard can't - four years of free tuition for its first matriculating class.

The San Francisco-based Minerva Project, an ambitious effort to remake the higher education model, announced its tuition plan on Tuesday in hopes of attracting some of the world's most talented and academically competitive students for the class that will enroll in the fall of 2014.

Although many details of the new school are still to be ironed out, students in subsequent years will pay tuition of $10,000 a year along with about $19,000 annually for room and board - still well below the cost of many other top U.S. universities that can run upwards of $50,000 and $60,000 a year.

"Not only are we looking at students who are intellectually brilliant, we are looking for students who have a deep intellectual thought, deep integrative thought, worldliness, excitement about seeing the world, and maturity," said Minerva founder Ben Nelson, who ran photo service Snapfish until he sold it to Hewlett Packard in 2005.

"We're asking a lot of them," he said about the first class of students. "We're asking them not only to be the first students at Minerva, but to help us shape it."

That will include providing constant feedback, he said in an interview, adding the first class would have between 15 and 19 students.

To recruit them, Minerva is working with guidance counselors and high school principals around the world, Nelson said, and several thousand inquiries have come in via its website from 99 countries.

Courses at Minerva, named for the Roman goddess of wisdom, will be seminar-oriented, focusing on higher level skills such as logic, reasoning, rhetoric and empirical analysis, Nelson said.

Students who need introductory classes such as Economics 101 will be encouraged to find free online lectures.

"Anything that can be delivered in a lecture, we don't think it's particularly moral of us to charge money for," he said.

In a further departure from the traditional educational model, the school's faculty, projected to be experts in their fields from around the world, will not be offered tenure. They will hold classes with the Minerva students online.

Students will spend their first year in San Francisco and then rotate to other cities in subsequent years, although the locations have not yet been determined.

Minerva is seeking academic accreditation in association with the Keck Graduate Institute, a member of the Claremont University Consortium, according to the school's website, and Nelson said he hoped to have that in hand before the first class is enrolled.

To get off the ground, Minerva raised $25 million from Benchmark, a top Silicon Valley venture-capital firm, last year. But eventually, Minerva hopes tuition plus fees for room and board will move the for-profit institution into the black.

Larry Summers, a former Treasury Secretary and former president of Harvard University, is an adviser to Minerva; former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey is its executive chairman.

Stephen Kosslyn, an academic who headed Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and previously served as dean of social sciences at Harvard University, is in charge of recruiting faculty.

Minerva is one of several efforts to upend traditional education, largely by using the Internet. Many universities have started offering courses online, often for free. Other groups have adopted the venture-backed model, including Udacity, a service teaching courses in areas such as artificial intelligence and cryptography that was started by a trio of roboticists.

Of course, the glean of the Internet does not guarantee success. Many long-standing online colleges mimic the structure, and sometimes approach the cost, of traditional universities. But some have high dropout and low graduation rates, and employers do not always value their degrees.

(Reporting by Sarah McBride; Editing by Ken Wills)

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