MOOC vs Traditional College: Eliminating the tradeoff between credibility and cost.

Over the past few years I have taken an increasing number of classes on MOOC platforms such as Coursera, Udacity, Udemy and Lynda. The most I’ve paid for an entire semester’s worth of content and mentorship is $500 (React Nanodegree on Udacity) but more typically the cost is between “free” and $50. My experiences on these platform leads me to believe they are the solution to our education problems outside of free college for everyone.

College tuitions are rapidly increasing and many graduates now face suffocating debt burdens. On a societal level, the student debt crisis is a major problem and there doesn’t appear to be any sign of it slowing down. In my opinion, simply shifting that debt burden to the public domain doesn’t do anything to solve the problem. It just makes a stupid situation “more equal” (because most of the people not getting access to college today aren’t going to be attending a “prestigious” school; and the reason that is important is laid out below).

There are two issues at play that need to be separated- skills development and signaling. My observation is that college is primarily a vehicle for signaling. Signaling is essentially the currency that gives you credibility and desirably. For example, if you graduate from Harvard, you are effectively letting the world know that you were accepted to Harvard and not much more than that. It doesn’t really say anything about your practical skills or your ability to contribute to a real world organization. There is obviously nothing wrong with going to Harvard. It’s great and you will presumably learn from smart professors and interact with interesting people. But who is to say someone from Harvard didn’t just spend 4 years getting hammered and didn’t accrue the knowledge and skill set society has taught us to believe that an Ivy League education instills. Nothing wrong with that. However, none of this conveys the presence of useful skills.

Now when the name of the college isn’t Harvard and is “Something State” or “Private College for Mediocre People” a lot of the signaling value for the school is gone. On the other hand, without a Bachelors Degree, which in many cases has become the bare minimum for employment, one becomes professionally handcuffed. This leaves people with two options: They can go to one of these schools, incur a large amount debt, and increase their odds of finding a decent job or they can struggle in the workforce and start at a much lower base salary than their peers that opted for the college route.

In short, there is too little emphasis on mechanisms for identifying the accumulation of knowledge, skills and expertise (such as work portfolios) and way too much emphasis on signaling. A more specific example that I have seen for myself is when I can take a class on Coursera for $50 but I see on Instagram that Columbia University is offering something similar for $4000 and a “Certificate”. Why? Because of brand value. I don’t blame them for trying to take advantage of their reputations, but I do blame our society for being so focused on signaling. It’s a waste of money. Let me reiterate that I have nothing against public or private Colleges and Universities. They have their place and serve as essential vehicles for research and intellectual advancement. But that does not mean they or their existing pricing models are the best vehicles for a majority of the population to get educated. If online courses had more professional value, it would eliminate a huge cost barrier for social mobility and encourage more people to pursue additional education.

It boggles my mind that in a world where you can learn virtually anything online, our proposed solution for universal education is to make college free without changing its structure and perpetuate the power of signaling and an outdated prestige system. That’s just lazy and a nice political talking point. There are much more effective vehicles for skill development right in front of our eyes. This is a PR problem, not a financial one.

**I realize this is a simplification of a complex topic. I have observed an increasing number of Public Universities offering dramatically lower cost Master’s Degrees on MOOC platforms like Coursera and EdX over the past year which is a. big step in the right direction. I hope more changes like this will continue to enhance the credibility of online learning and shift our assessment of education from an emphasis on brand name to work portfolios or other more direct reflections of knowledge.

All things startup and technology. Founder of https://www.scrumlaunch.com— A product development studio for high growth startups and leading brands.

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