Coursera and Minnesota: What Was All The Fuss About?

The tempest that raged last week after a few misleading headlines suggested that Coursera, an educational technology startup that provides free online courses, is illegal under Minnesota law is now passing away. In response to unrest among the citizens of the Internet, the state has agreed not to enforce the disputed law in the case of the free, online educational forum.

Minnesota law requires colleges and universities to register with the state before offering courses to residents. The institutions that participate in Coursera have not registered, and the company has been working with the state for a few months to find a solution, according to Coursera representatives and Sandy Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Meanwhile, the company added a paragraph to its terms of use in August instructing Minnesota residents not to use the platform or to do their coursework outside the state.

Coursera enrolls about 1.7 million people around the world. It’s unlikely the additional paragraph in the terms of service would have had any real effect, unless Coursera’s users in Minnesota are particularly scrupulous. The courses are available for free online, so if people in Minnesota want to take a course on Coursera, there’s little the state or the company can do to stop them—and they won’t be violating any state laws, only Coursera’s terms of service.

Minnesota’s promise not to enforce the law with respect to Coursera is thus entirely symbolic, because the state never could have enforced it anyway.

All the same, Slate’s Will Oremus gave Minnesota a prize for “most creative use of government to stifle innovation.” For Tim Worstall at Forbes, the news was the occasion for a screed on the ability of existing firms to resist new technologies.

I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Minnesota so harshly.

The state’s goal was not to tar and feather Coursera all the way to the Iowa border. As Connolly explained, the purpose of registration is to protect consumers of higher education (that is, students). According to Minnesota’s statute 136A.61, the state must ensure “the authenticity and legitimacy of private postsecondary education institutions and programs.” The state has every reason to worry about self-described innovators in the field. Coursera is free, and the institutions it represents are legitimate, but for-profit institutions are not always. President Obama’s gainful employment rule specifies that in order to continue to receive federal funding America’s vocational schools must make sure that at least 35 percent of former students are paying down their loans and former students are not spending more than 30 percent of their discretionary income on loan payments. The rule, aimed at for-profit colleges and trade schools whose alumni aren’t prepared to join the workforce, is not particularly stringent, and a federal judge struck down part of it in July. Given the failure of the federal government to effectively police these fraudulent and predatory schools, states should not be blamed for doing what they can.

That said, the Minnesota law is not unique among states, and a Coursera spokeswoman for Andrew Ng, one of the company’s founders, noted that each of the 33 schools on the site would need to register separately with Minnesota before the state’s residents can take that school’s courses. Several schools have already applied, but they may have to go through a similar process in other states, which could truly become an obstacle to online education.

Larry Pogemiller, director of the Office of Higher Education, told Oremus he wants the Minnesota legislature to revise the state’s law for the new world of online education. I worry that revision could be an opportunity for the for-profit college industry to weaken students’ protections in the state. The episode makes clear the need for strong federal standards for private postsecondary schools, so that global platforms such as Coursera aren’t hampered by local statutory variations.

Max Ehrenfreund

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund