A funny thing is happening at some of America’s most prestigious colleges and universities. For more than a century, university prestige has been based almost entirely on a sense of scarcity—the more selective the admissions process, the greater an institution’s reputation.
But there are signs that a completely different dimension of higher education prestige has emerged: openness. I profiled the Hewlett Foundation’s role in driving this trend in last month’s Philanthropy Magazine, arguing that open online courses have become a part of some prestigious universities’ brands. In the same way that firms pride themselves on being “green,” top universities are touting their efforts to be “open.”
The list of institutions that offer “massively open online courses” (MOOC) is growing. MIT and Stanford led the way with blockbuster announcements last fall. MIT’s “MITx” initiative will grant certificates to students who take the exams; Stanford’s first MOOC attracted 160,000 students, 23,000 of which sat for the final exam in far-off corners of the globe. Princeton, Penn, and Michigan have recently made moves to develop an open, online presence. Not one to be left off a prestigious list, Harvard yesterday announced “edX,” a joint venture with MIT similar in style and scope to MITx.
The real innovation here is the granting of “credit” for course completion. Sure, every last one of these institutions will tell you that online students won’t receive actual credits from the college, but a kind of quasi-credit that signals successful completion. But for employers and less prestigious colleges, will that distinction matter?
It will only be a matter of time until students start to take their edX credits directly to employers, thereby circumventing the expensive process that we currently use to credential people and making an end-run around the college cost problem. The high-powered universities offering the courses aren’t going anywhere (don’t start eyeing real estate on the banks of the Charles), but others may want to plan ahead. For their part, policymakers should spend less time haggling over student loan interest rates and more time figuring out how to encourage such low-cost course providers.
In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character famously tells a Harvard student: “one day you’ll figure out that you dropped one-hundred and fifty grand on [an]. . . education that you coulda got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.” If MOOC’s continue to take root, that estimate may not be that far off.