Fresh Capital

Benchmark Invests $25 M. In Minerva Project to Build a Better Ivy League School at Half the Cost

img about Benchmark Invests $25 M. In Minerva Project to Build a Better Ivy League School at Half the CostEarlier this week, New York-based online higher-ed startup 2tor raised a $26 million Series D. Just six months earlier, Knewton, another local online education startup, picked up $33 million Series D.

The “edutech” market, as the New York City Economic Development Corporation called it in a recent report suggesting we build a sector right here at home, may be well-funded, but most startups tend to work within the system–offering symbiotic solutions like Coursekit (a Blackboard alternative). Of course, there’s also the Peter Thiel approach, which pays you to bypass the entire enterprise.

Minerva Project takes a more audacious approach. Founder Ben Nelson calls his project “the first elite American University to be launched in a century.” If you’re looking at the Ivy League, it’s even longer than that. (Cornell, the most recent entry, was founded in 1865.)

Yesterday, Benchmark Capital made the largest seed funding investment in the firm’s 17 years: $25 million towards helping Minerva establish a rigorous admissions criteria, online courses with a limited number of students, global campuses, and what Fortune.com calls “reinvented teaching responsibilities.” All at $20,000 a year, or “less than half” what the Ivies cost, plus $11,000 per year in room, board, and travel costs to live in urban dorms in metropolises around the world.

The institution’s mission statement is some pretty head stuff:

“In the admissions process, The Minerva Project relies strictly on the world’s most demanding intellectual standards, while giving no weight to lineage, athletic ability, state or country of origin, or capacity to donate.”

Even extracurricular activities are ignored! In fact, Mr. Nelson tells Fortune.com that the idea came to him after learning how many academically sound students were being turned away from top American institutions:

 “Harvard’s dean of admissions, for example, said that 85% of applicants are qualified,  but less than one in ten is actually accepted… and it’s particularly difficult for foreign students trying to get into American schools. There is a basic supply and demand imbalance.”

Minerva, a for-profit enterprise, will work by contracting established professors to create proprietary online lectures and then hiring advanced degree holders (rather than graduate students) to run online, interactive seminars that function “kind of like breakout sessions.” Graduates will benefit from active involvement in promoting their careers, including making introductions within their field of choice.

Mr. Nelson figures he’ll be able to offer all this by not spending on physical infrastructure and recruiting professors-focused on research. Oh yeah, and by not offering the education you can find for free. As he told VentureBeat:

“We are in a world where knowledge is becoming more ubiquitous and free, so you’ll never seen a Spanish 101 or Economics 101 course at Minerva because it’s ridiculous for students to pay us money to learn stuff that they can go online and learn for free,” said Nelson.

Wait, you have to teach yourself all the basics before you get to college? And here we thought finishing The Illiad before the first day of class was a drag.

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com