The proliferation of online college course options offers the promise of the “reinvention” of college education. As Kevin Carey wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education a few months ago:

Colleges have a monopoly on the sale of college credits, the only units of learning that can be assembled into credentials with wide acceptance in the labor market. Monopolies are valuable things to control, and monopolists tend not to relinquish them voluntarily. But the MOOC [massive open online course] explosion will accelerate the breakup of the college credit monopoly.

This is a common theme in those writing about education technology, but is it right?

Probably not, write Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk in another article for the Chronicle. What can online courses really replace?


In higher education, that is the question of the moment—and the answer is not clear, even to those lining up to push for college reinvention. But the question few people want to grapple with is, For whom are we reinventing college?

The punditry around reinvention (including some in these pages) has trumpeted the arrival of MOOC’s, badges, “UnCollege,” and so on as the beginning of a historic transformation. “College Is Dead. Long Live College!,” declared a headline in Time’s “Reinventing College” issue, in October, which pondered whether massive open online courses would “finally pop the tuition bubble.” With the advent of MOOC’s, “we’re witnessing the end of higher education as we know it,” pronounced Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, in The Boston Globe last month.

Read beneath the headlines a bit. The pundits and disrupters, many of whom enjoyed liberal-arts educations at elite colleges, herald a revolution in higher education that is not for people like them or their children, but for others: less-wealthy, less-prepared students who are increasingly cut off from the dream of a traditional college education.

We’re not really talking about reinventing college. College itself will remain roughly as it’s always been. In general online education doesn’t offer the promise to disrupt the sort of college that rich people attend, it can mostly only disrupt the sort of college poor people can hope to attend.

Will they still have an opportunity to access a traditional college at a reasonable price, or will they have to settle for computer programs, no matter how “sophisticated” or “innovative” that basically force them to assume all of the work for their own education? Carlson and Blumenstyk:

Entrepreneurs… are creating an industrialized version of higher education that the most fervent disruptionists predict could replace mid-sized state institutions or less-selective private colleges. “I think the top 50 schools are probably safe,” [MOOC provider Udacity’s founder, David] Stavens said.

Well sure, but who goes to “mid-sized state institutions or less-selective private colleges”? First generation college students, the children of immigrants, the working poor, America’s elementary school teachers, insurance salesmen, bank branch managers. Why don’t they deserve real college?

The great problem of MOOCs is that, despite all of this glossy talk about disrupting “stogy” or “tradition” bound American academia, at this point all reinvention seems to apply only to reinventing college as a 2-tierd system; real college for the rich and awesome new technology for the poor.

We’re probably kidding ourselves if we think the world isn’t going to recognize the difference once people graduate.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer