Are MOOCs the Answer to Massive Tuition Hikes?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) —Are massive online open courses (MOOCs) the wave of the future? It is no secret that the cost of a college education has grown at an unsustainable pace--up 1,100% over the last 35 years--and the burden of student debt is at a crisis level. Is online education the answer to making a college more affordable and accessible?

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Heather Jarvis, a student loan expert who provides education and training to student loan borrowers, thinks “innovative ideas like MOOCs are an important part of the solution.” According to Jarvis, “it is appropriate for us to think of all kinds of ways that we can minimize the costs in education.” Also, given that lifetime earnings advantage of college graduates over high school grads has been pegged at $279,893 (a little more than the cost of an exclusive four-year school), the actual value-add of a college degree from an elite institution becomes questionable from the perspective of earning potential.

For those in a traditioanl educational setting, Jarvis would advise students who are considering the MOOC courses to think about what they want to do with the course and check with their educational institution on how the course will be treated. Although colleges and universities are currently structured around credit hours, Jarvis states that “government is backing off of the idea of credit hours” and “moving to a competency standard.” The idea is that rather than getting credit based on the number of hours, students could get credit based on mastering competencies and demonstrating knowledge. If the competency standard concept moves forward, MOOCs could play an important role in making college more affordable.

MOOCs popped up in the higher education landscape in 2008, but the MOOC movement really took off in 2012 as new providers came on the scene and top universities signed on to provide MOOCs. The popular providers of MOOCs include Coursera, Udacity, edX and NovoEd. The list of universities providing MOOCs is impressive, with names such as Stanford, Princeton, Brown, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Pennsylvania all offering courses. MOOCs are evolving with Coursera recently announcing that it will soon add an “app platform” to allow universities to add interactive instructional tools. Coursera also began experimenting with charging modest fees to students for certificates of completion. The fees for the certificates, Coursera’s “signature track,” range from $30 to $100, and students who cannot afford the fee can register for financial assistance. In addition, the American Council on Education recently approved five Coursersa courses for degree credit. The universities still have the option of whether or not to offer the approved courses for credit, but two to three credit courses on Coursera could be between $90-$100.