mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Winter for Higher-Ed
MOOCs Could Save the World

America’s higher education system is an example to the world—and that’s not necessarily all to the good. In a lead article as well as a special feature, the Economist argues that America’s higher ed system is increasingly spreading across the globe, with more and more people going to universities that resemble America’s colleges. However, as the Economist notes, America’s education system is good at delivering excellence but become increasingly dysfunctional—and very expensive. One of the main reasons is that some colleges have become credential mills, where earning a degree is more important than learning:

A recent study of recruitment by professional-services firms found that they took graduates from the most prestigious universities not because of what the candidates might have learned but because of those institutions’ tough selection procedures. In short, students could be paying vast sums merely to go through a very elaborate sorting mechanism.

If America’s universities are indeed poor value for money, why might that be? The main reason is that the market for higher education, like that for health care, does not work well. The government rewards universities for research, so that is what professors concentrate on. Students are looking for a degree from an institution that will impress employers; employers are interested primarily in the selectivity of the institution a candidate has attended. Since the value of a degree from a selective institution depends on its scarcity, good universities have little incentive to produce more graduates. And, in the absence of a clear measure of educational output, price becomes a proxy for quality. By charging more, good universities gain both revenue and prestige.

Another reason why higher ed’s bang-to-buck ratio is lower these days, ironically, is that generous federal student loans have helped subsidize an expensive system and even perhaps made it pricier. The Economist’s special report argues that technology, especially MOOCs and online courses, could help in this regard by lowering costs. But many colleges—and college faculty members—resist them because they have a lot invested in the status quo.

In fact, the adoption of MOOCs may be a case in which the U.S. can learn from the rest of the world. Unmentioned by the Economist is that MOOCs (though offered by companies of American origin) are popular in other countries like India and Trinidad and Tobago. The rest of the world might surpass us, in other words, in embracing and legitimizing educational tech—particularly if it permits people who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to a traditional, brick-and-mortar college to start attending classes online. If that’s true, American colleges should start taking a page out of foreign colleges’ playbook. We’d all be the better for it.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Andrew Allison

    Could it be that, in addition to being highly selective, the most prestigious universities are still giving an education rather than simply being diploma mills? This is not the first time TAI has commented on the declining quality of education, and hence value of the diploma, at the latter. The recent news that enrollment at one of the biggest of them has halved suggests that students are wising up to this. On the flip side, the news that the number of students at Stanford suspected of cheating ( has risen dramatically suggests that prestigious universities are not immune from problems. Should we perhaps stop looking for ways to grant more diplomas and start looking more closely at providing the skills that people actually need to get a job?

    • JebTheGreat2016

      If it was on Faux “News” then it has to be made-up news like War On Christmas.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The resistance to moving to MOOCs is much greater than mentioned. At the moment American campuses are places of Leftist indoctrination, if study moves on-line it would mean an end to that leftist indoctrination. Employment in higher education would dry up as the famous professors go independent and get rich teaching classes of tens of thousands, and selling text books, videos, tests, and certification.
    Employers pick employees from prestigious schools because it’s easier, if a simple method for rating students of MOOCs was available, something like the credit bureaus, Employers would change in an instant.

    • JebTheGreat2016

      who do you think is teaching MOOCs? The same professors you are accusing of leftist indoctrination. Of course, by indoctrination you mean teaching anything that doesn’t conform your view of alternative reality of FauX News, WSJ,… Right wing “think”-tanks can start their own MOOCs and teach American “Exceptionalism”, Creationism, Supply-Side “Economics”, etc. and Glenn Beck Univ can give diplomas based on those courses.

    • rheddles

      You underestimate the club factor. Wall Street and consulting not going to hire many people who did not attend Ivies. Corporate America appreciates that graduates of Penn State and Texas A&M have demonstrated that they can endure 4 years of an oppressive bureaucracy. That’s why fraternities won’t disappear also. MOOCs are really a threat to the third level regional and community colleges who are turning out a commodity product consisting only of employment skills.

  • FriendlyGoat

    “where earning a degree is more important than learning”

    Anybody who values learning will not devalue the actual completion of the degree. You could ask any graduate in the United States whether his or her degree was more important than some of the crazy requirements he or she went through to get it. I don’t have to tell you what the answer would be.

  • RCPreader

    Does the author of this piece even understand what a MOOC is? It appears not. A MOOC is, by definition, a “massive open online course.” Note the first two letters: “massive” and “open.” MOOCs are normally not (and certainly should not be) part of degree-granting programs. “Open” means they are open to anyone — one need not be matriculated in an institution. “Massive” means that they operate with minimal oversight and staffing (for the number of students) by the institution. Beyond particular technical subjects (such as computer programming), meaningful grading is impossible. (Nobody is grading papers or essay exams.) And, there is no way of knowing if the person signed up for the course is the person doing the work; there is normally no exam proctoring with MOOCs. (This is unnecessary, since, to repeat, MOOCs are NOT for degrees!) While other forms of online education can serve as degree-granting vehicles, MOOCs cannot; they are for learning only, which is a great thing, but does not provide a credential.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service