Blame it on academic hubris, but the specter of a few elites badmouthing a revolution in online education is about as easy to swallow as the price of college tuition these days.
In case you weren't aware -- and ironically enough, thanks to the online efforts of Slate.com and the news board Reddit -- a backlash ensued last fall when the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Minnesota statutes prohibited the offering of online courses through Coursera.
The California-based company has teamed up with more than 30 prestigious universities -- from Harvard to Duke to Stanford (where two professors developed the online platform) -- to offer classwork that the American Council on Education may soon recommend for college credit.
The state's Office of Higher Education said it had warned institutions offering those classes in Minnesota "as part of our overall responsibility to provide consumer protection for students." Now the state has cautiously backed off. Larry Pogemiller, director of the office, sees "no reason" to require registration of free online classes -- at least until the Legislature can take another look at the law this upcoming session.
But as the Star Tribune reported in December, no Minnesota college has yet to offer one of these immensely popular "massive open online courses," or MOOCs. More important, they're not in any hurry to offer academic credit for completed MOOCs elsewhere -- even though most schools do so for "advanced placement" high school classes or other work experience.
Pogemiller, who along with his colleagues in the statehouse was a rubber stamp for any appropriation remotely connected to "education," says that before plunging forward, "we need to be thoughtful about it." Critics apparently worry about the rigor of online work and whether students can demonstrate actual learning. One University of Minnesota professor derided MOOCs as merely books on a computer.
This from an employee of an institution that charges $13,500 annually, merely in tuition and fees, for taking classes like "Geology and Cinema." Or how about "Feminist Film Studies," or "American Indians and the Cinema?" Boy, these people love movies.
In fact, if you really want an exposé in identity politics posing as a requirement for liberal arts, go to this website and check out the course catalog under "liberal education requirements" on the left side of the page. It becomes abundantly clear that the "social sciences" are no longer teaching those Western values that unite us, but merely offering up red meat for any group with a grievance.
The knee-jerk defenders of the overpriced status quo in higher ed are on a collision course with reality. They will claim that average college graduates make more than nongrads -- if they can find a job in their chosen fields -- but ignore that student loan debt has risen to $1 trillion and is quickly wiping out most gains. Were it not for the massive amounts of taxpayer subsidies via state appropriations and financial aid (the $40 billion Pell Grant program now funds half of all undergrads), most universities would have long ago priced themselves out of the market.
But instead of eliminating the frivolous coursework, or layer upon layer of administrative overhead (as the Wall Street Journal starkly documented last week), or universit- funded institutes designed to hype the supposed evils of, say, urban sprawl -- yes, billions in endowments could be put to other uses if the benefactors were only asked -- the regents, trustees, and obedient lawmakers predictably circle the wagons and hope to stave off cheaper technological competition.
All the while, Bloomberg reports that the cost of obtaining a four-year degree has surged by 1,120 percent in the last 35 years. To put that in perspective, medical expenses have risen 600 percent. Yet the University of Minnesota, in its recent $1.1 billion funding request to the Legislature, says the only way it can freeze skyrocketing tuition is -- you guessed it -- if state government pays more.
For all the talk of bailouts these days, one has to wonder how long this one can last.
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Jason Lewis is a nationally syndicated talk-show host based in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and is the author of "Power Divided is Power Checked: The Argument for States' Rights" from Bascom Hill Publishing. He can be heard locally from 5 to 8 p.m. on NewsTalk Radio (1130-AM) and at jasonlewisshow.com.