Suzanne Fields

Thousands of moms and dads, following the script written into an autumn ritual of the middle class, are preparing to say farewell to the sons and daughters they've loved, nurtured and tried to civilize for two decades. They're sending the next generation off to college and saying goodbye to a considerable chunk of the family savings.

We've been told so many times that college is an investment to ensure a prosperous future, that nearly everybody believes it. But it's an investment with risks. The cost of a college degree runs as high as $60,000 a year at the elite schools -- nearly a quarter of a million dollars by the end of the fourth year. The average college graduate carries a debt of $33,000, many with more than that and a few twice that. A growing number of critics say the university system is an anachronism in the Age of the Internet. There must be a better way. One of them might be digital.

Some of the most innovative ideas are known by the acronym MOOC, for Massive Open Online Courses, which invite participation and electronic exchange and conversation with professors armed with videos and access to online information. Many online schools are accredited; some are free, and several are run by professors from elite universities.

The newest model in the high-tech smorgasbord is called the Minerva Project, named for the Roman goddess of wisdom. Minerva is a new university global in approach, eliminating the costliest aspects of traditional college education, but it's not a MOOC because it will offer a city campus with small classes. Minerva cuts costs by having no tenure, no ivy clinging to huge old buildings, no football stadium or basketball field house, no dining hall, no library, no expensive and wasteful administrative bureaucracy, and perhaps most unusual -- and controversial -- no lectures.

Minerva revels in being elitist and aims to make a profit by teaching the best and the brightest through digital exchange, motivating students to learn without frills. The university takes no federal money and will rely on private funding. (It's already raised $25 million from investors.)

Ben Nelson, 38, is the ambitious founder of Minerva and the successful entrepreneur who created Snapfish, the online snapshot processor, which he sold to Hewlett Packard for $300 million in 2005. He says Minerva is designed to educate leaders who will run major institutions in the world. His first major faculty hire was Stephen M. Kosslyn, who taught and held administrative posts at Harvard and Stanford, identified by Atlantic magazine as the man who will train professors to teach the Minerva way.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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