Education wants to be free

The story
Coursera, a California-based company founded earlier this year, offers free courses from some of the top universities in the world. However, Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education told Coursera not to offer its courses to residents of their state, citing a 20-year-old law barring degree-granting institutions from offering courses to Minnesotans without registering and paying a fee. The internet blew up about it when the news broke Thursday, and in one day MN decided to stop enforcing the law (how’s that for gov’t efficiency? ‘people-power’ [or mass action as biochemists would say] in action).

It’s an interesting  example of a case that probably would have bipartisan, +/- universal support. Why would you NOT allow free education on the internet? Republicans would say: clearly this is a case of government regulation getting out of control. Democrats would say: this is what happens when you try to ‘Ayn Rand’ the world by putting a price on everything–after all, ‘information wants to be free’!

Yet the law itself had good intentions–to prevent degree-mill scams from taking Minnesotans’ money.

Degree mills, credentialism, & patient safety
I doubt this law would protect citizens from degree mills, but I generally have a negative view of for-profit education and the increasing ‘credentialism’ I see in the US. The most salient trend I’ve seen is that once a for-profit institution (eg. U of Phoenix) begins to offer a certificate or ‘degree’ in something, then employers respond over time by requiring that applicants have the degree (they’re trying to minimize training costs and risk of incompetence). Before you know it, entire professions are locked in to the ‘credentialist’ system, forcing workers to pay for their own job training, even for entry-level positions, before they even get the job. While an argument could be made that this really serves the public good by protecting against incompetence, I think that in many cases it does more harm than good.

For example–I’ve known people who had to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to go to school to get a phlebotomist (someone who draws blood) degree. These were usually people who were already doing phlebotomy in their jobs and who were doing a very good job of it. They were lucky to have found one of those rare employers that still did on-the-job training for things like that. Yet they had to pay lots of money and spend lots of time taking these classes in order to get a pay raise or find employment in a different health system. I don’t mean to malign phlebotomists or the work they do, but it really does not require a degree to be done well. On-the-job training should be sufficient to ensure phlebotomists do their job right without compromising their own or patients’ safety.

As with most things, the burden of ‘credentialism’ falls greatest on the poor. It hinders upward mobility and enriches the owners of parasitic institutions (degree mills) that aren’t providing any real service to society.