The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that California State University is working on a plan to grant real college credit for massive online open courses (MOOCs), classes designed by colleges and aimed at large-scale participation and open access over the Internet.

According to an article by Jeffrey Young:

On Tuesday, San Jose State University announced an unusual pilot project with Udacity, a for-profit provider of the massive open online courses, to jointly create three introductory mathematics classes. The courses will be free online, but students who want credit from San Jose State will be able to take them for just $150, far less than the $450 to $750 that students would typically pay for a credit-bearing course.

If the project continues beyond the pilot, the university will keep 51 percent of any revenue after costs are covered and Udacity will keep 49 percent, said Mohammad Qayoumi, president of the university, in an interview on Monday.

This development isn’t that surprising. Given California’s reluctance (or inability) to fund its public higher education system, plus its enthusiasm for online education, it was bound to dream up a plan to offer credit for MOOCs eventually.

No, the important thing about this new development is the price. One of the major benefits of MOOCs is that, thus far, they’ve been free for those taking the classes. Faculty from many of America’s elite colleges have, together with staff from companies like Udacity, designed courses that could be effectively transmitted to huge numbers of people over the Internet. They were run so efficiently that they allowed many universities to offer a version of their courses at no cost to users.

So far this appeared to be a sort of public service project (now anyone can learn from Stanford professors, for free!); the material from the country’s most exclusive colleges was there; anyone in America could now access it in his spare time. If he managed to complete all of the requirements of the online course he’d receive a “statement of accomplishment.” Such participants wouldn’t, of course, have actually attended Stanford, but they could perhaps demonstrate to employers and other colleges they might want to attend that they had the intelligence and skills needed to complete demanding work.

It’s potentially useful to aspiring college students that they can now receive credit for such courses, but if it’s cheap enough to administer that many colleges can make it free, how can Cal State justify charging for it?

In addition, that $150 San Jose State plans to charge is essentially arbitrary, since it seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the cost of administration. Once its MOOCs-for-credit scheme takes off, what’s to prevent the institution from charging more? It might be a great way for Cal State to rake in some much-needed cash.

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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