One Good Question with Ben Nelson: Do we actually believe that college matters?

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College / Education Equity / International Education / One Good Question / Post-Secondary Education / School Design

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.” These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

Education matters.  It sounds so banal and simple.  Everyone in the world says this, but I argue that no one actually believes that education matters. Here’s the proof:

Imagine a high school student that has the option to go to  A) Harvard or B) some other less prestigious educational institution where they will get a better education. How many people are going to say don’t go to Harvard?  Effectively nobody.

If people actually believed that education mattered, then college rankings, curricula, and choice wouldn’t exist in these formats.  Fundamentally, no one believes that the education matters, but that the credentials matter.  People think “have credential, will travel”.  And they’re wrong.  Credentials actually don’t really matter.  Credentials ultimately are put to the test when you get to the real world.

The investment – whether dollars, human capital, time and money—from government, private sector, or families—the investment that returns the most in your life is learning.  It’s not getting an education.


You’re shifting the whole paradigm here – learning matters but learning institutions less so?  I still believe in “school,” so help me understand this.

We need to make a distinction between getting an education, being educated and actually learning.  One of the key elements to know that learning has occurred is the concept called far transfer.  Far transfer occurs when people apply learning from one context to a problem/need in a radically different context.  You know that some has learned when they say, “I’ve never seen this before, but I’ve seen all of these common elements.  I studied XYZ and there are patterns developed between them that I recognize here.  With certainty, I know that if I do ABC I will likely get positive results.

So for families wondering where to invest in their children’s success?  Invest in education, not the credential.


How do you get people to shift their values towards “education” not credential?  Hyperbolic discounting is the phenomenon that things get better with age.  Among youth and adults—if you are told “you can invest $10 today and get $100 5 years from now” most people say they would rather spend the $10 today.  Similarly, when you tell an 18-year old kid, you shouldn’t drop acid/do coke, because you’re going to have a lot of fun tonight, but 10 years from now you may ruin your life.  They discount it.  This is so built in to human nature to think about short-term reward vs long-term benefit.

It’s hard to admit that you don’t believe in our education system.  When push comes to shove and you’re at the supermarket, run into your old friend and she asks where your kid is going to school, you want to say Harvard (or whichever university has status for you).  You don’t want to say she’s getting an amazing education at “unbranded institution.”  You sacrifice the future well-being of your child to have an easier supermarket conversation.  That’s how human beings behave.

How do we have a republic that works?  People understand and are informed instead of responding to their cognitive biases.  They actually commit to spending the time thinking about how not to generate irrational biases. That requires long-term thinking, i.e.  I’m going to spend more time pouring through this article, so that my one vote will be a beacon of light and influence others.  We’re not built to think that way, even though we live in a world that requires us too.  That’s the problem we’re stuck in.  We’re not designed for the modern world. We’re still designed to be hunters and gatherers.  The only solution I see to our problem is long-term and systemic.  Minerva exists to reform education systems all over the world.  We believe that reform occurs when the most prestigious institutions reset.  Ripple effect goes through the rest of the system.  This is a process that will take longer than my lifetime.

Don’t divorce the election outcomes from what government policy has been over the past several decades.  Republicans and Democrats have focused the last 50 years of higher education policy on: increasing access, increase completion, and more recently lowering costs.  The easiest way to increase college access, completion and make it cheaper – is to lower standards.  It’s the easiest way.  Anyone can go, anyone can finish and it’ll be cheaper.

If you actually educate your citizenry, and not just drive people towards the same credentials, more of the population will be ready to take the next step. When you apply science of learning, students are more engaged and are ready to make informed choices. Completion rates then increase.  Thirdly, as education institutions focus on education, then they can shed all of the outrageous cost levels that universities are currently in the trap of doing: sports, research salaries, campus museum and performing arts centers.   The cost burden of creating these country clubs falls to students and tax-payers but what’s the ROI?  If higher ed actually focused on education, then we could solve this.  College access and completion rates are only symptoms.  You have to treat the root cause.


Ben Nelson

Ben Nelson

Ben’s One Good Question:  How do you enable wise decision-making in a world with unwise people?  I don’t know the answer to that.  I know how to make less and less wise decisions accelerate—social media, balkanization, knowledge migration – all these trends and realities are pushing us in the wrong direction.


About Ben : Ben Nelson is Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Minerva, and a visionary with a passion to reinvent higher education. Prior to Minerva, Nelson spent more than 10 years at Snapfish, where he helped build the company from startup to the world’s largest personal publishing service. With over 42 million transactions across 22 countries, nearly five times greater than its closest competitor, Snapfish is among the top e-commerce services in the world. Serving as CEO from 2005 through 2010, Nelson began his tenure at Snapfish by leading the company’s sale to Hewlett Packard for $300 million.  Prior to joining Snapfish, Nelson was President and CEO of Community Ventures, a network of locally branded portals for American communities.

Nelson’s passion for reforming undergraduate education was first sparked at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he received a B.S. in Economics. After creating a blueprint for curricular reform in his first year of school, Nelson went on to become the chair of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education (SCUE), a pedagogical think tank that is the oldest and only non-elected student government body at the University of Pennsylvania.


The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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