Minnesota Office of Higher Education bans free online classes in head-scratching move

Want to take a free college-level class online? Head to Wisconsin, says the state of Minnesota.
Want to take a free college-level class online? Head to Wisconsin, says the state of Minnesota.

As we told you about this morning, college is expensive and only getting pricier. So what's an aspiring human being with limited financial means to do? One option, you might think, is to take free online classes, like those offered by Coursera.

SEE ALSO: Minnesota college grads have third-most debt; MCAD has highest average debt load

That would've been a solid idea until earlier this week, when, in a real head-scratcher, the state's Office of Higher Education informed Coursera that is legally prohibited from offering free classes in Minnesota without OHE permission.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that "It's unclear how the [prohibition] could be enforced when the content is freely available on the Web," but Coursera updated its Terms of Service to include the following caution:

Notice for Minnesota Users:

Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.

The move prompted Slate to award our state with "the grand prize in this week's unexpectedly heated competition for most creative use of government to stifle innovation."

Here's some background information on Coursera, which is a for-profit company currently funded by venture capital:

Coursera is an educational technology company founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University. Coursera partners with various universities and makes a few of their courses available online free for a large audience. Coursera says it is "committed to making the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it." As of August 16, 2012 more than 1,080,000 students from 196 countries have enrolled in at least one course.

After news of the OHE's move created a wave of bad publicity for the state, George Roedler, manager of institutional registration and licensing at the Minnesota OHE, tried to shed more light on the state's motivation to Slate. From Slate's report:

[Roedler said] that his office's issue isn't with Coursera per se, but with the universities that offer classes through its website. State law prohibits degree-granting institutions from offering instruction in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. (The fee can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, plus a $1,200 annual renewal.) That means that it's Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, the University of Melbourne, et al. that are violating Minnesota law by partnering with Coursera to offer courses that Minnesota residents can take for free.

"It's not like we're sending the police out if somebody signs up online," Roedler adds. "It's just that the school is operating contrary to state law."

The law's intent is to protect Minnesota students from wasting their money on degrees from substandard institutions, Roedler says. As such, he suspects that Coursera's partner institutions would have little trouble obtaining the registration. He says he had hoped to work with Coursera to achieve that, and was surprised when they responded with the terms-of-service change notifying Minnesota residents of the law.

The thing is, no one is wasting their money on Coursera courses, because they're free. (Yes, says Roedler, but they could still be wasting their time.) And again, while its partners are degree-granting institutions, no one is getting a Stanford degree by taking a class or two on Coursera. At most, some classes offer a "certificate of completion." If every government took Minnesota's approach, free online education probably wouldn't exist, because the cost of compliance and registration in all 50 states, let alone other countries, would be prohibitive. Here's hoping that common sense prevails.

Adding to the bafflement are comments OHE Director Larry Pogemiller made to MPR last month about difficulties his office faces in trying to regulate for-profit schools:

Pogemiller described Minnesota's regulations of for-profit colleges as average but said his office does not have the money or staff to investigate for-profit schools.

"When I first came over in this job six months ago, I was kind of surprised," Pogemiller said of the state's lack of oversight of for-profit colleges. "It's really just kind of a registration system. I actually thought it was more regulated than it was."

State higher education officials review the finances and programs of for-profit schools registered with the state. They also mediate student complaints. But the complaints typically involve grades or tuition disputes.

So OHE is cracking down on free classes for non-degree-seeking students while allowing for-profit schools with degree-seeking students to get a free pass? Did we mention 2011 Minnesota college grads had the third highest debt loads of graduates from all states?

:: UPDATE :: October 20, 12:15 p.m.

Pogemiller and the OHE have reportedly reconsidered the ban and will allow Minnesotans to take free online classes after all.

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