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Stanford Economist: Elite Colleges Should Not Give Credit for MOOCs

If highly selective colleges begin awarding credit to students who pass massive open online courses created by their faculty members, the institutions could undermine their ability to invest in promising students, according to an analysis by a well-known Stanford University economist.

Caroline M. Hoxby rose to prominence with her research into helping talented, low-income high-school students make better decisions about where to apply to college. In a new working paper published online by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Ms. Hoxby takes on the subject of MOOCs and what they could mean for colleges.

Her conclusions—that MOOCs provide a more suitable substitute for certain nonselective-college programs than for selective ones—are not necessarily as intriguing as her analysis, which frames the issue in economic terms.

Highly selective institutions like Stanford do not so much sell education programs and services for an upfront fee, Ms. Hoxby writes. Instead, they invest in promising students who are likely to attain wealth and influence after college. Only a fraction of those students will end up making significant gifts to the institution later in life, but those gifts subsidize the programs and services Stanford supplies to all its other students.

The sustainability of that “virtuous circle” depends on those talented students’ feeling a deep emotional connection to their alma mater, writes the Stanford professor. If selective colleges began granting credit to students who succeeded in their MOOCs, it could compromise the more traditional “human-capital investments” in their portfolios, she says.

Credit-bearing MOOCs are more suitable replacements for some courses offered by nonselective institutions, which behave more like retailers than long-term investors, writes Ms. Hoxby. She adds:

Some enthusiasts of online education foresee and look forward to the day in which [highly selective] institutions’ giving credit for MOOCs authored by their faculty destroys the institutions’ intergenerational virtuous circle. Such enthusiasts apparently want to repurpose the resources of [highly selective] institutions from advanced education (and research) to educating the masses. [Highly selective] institutions have no advantage in educating the masses, and their resources, though considerable for the narrow purpose they pursue, are negligible relative to the problem of mass postsecondary education.

You can read the entire paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, here.

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