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Coursera and the uncertain future of higher education

October 25, 2021, 10:12 AM UTC
The average starting salary for college graduates is $55,000, but current college students think they’ll earn nearly double that amount from their first job out of school.
Leon Neil—Getty Images

The future of higher education is being led by a publicly traded company in California that is growing like gangbusters. Its online platform has a portfolio of thousands of courses from the world’s leading universities, corporations, and nonprofits.

Coursera, which since the spring has been listed on the New York Stock Exchange, is valued at 7 billion dollars and seems to be making all the right moves.

While college and university enrollments have been declining during the pandemic, Coursera’s enrollment rose from 53 million to 78 million students this spring—an increase greater than total U.S. higher education enrollment.

In recent months, leaders of the online learning platform began making deals with colleges to further encourage their growth.  As institutions across the country were going online and closing their campuses, Coursera began offering courses on the Coronavirus and gave pandemic-impacted colleges and their students free access to courses. Within a month, institutions around the globe were tapping into its programs and, a month later, the company unveiled CourseMatch, which automatically matches Coursera courses to their on-campus versions across the globe.

Coursera is blurring the lines between itself and institutions with an inducement that is hard to ignore. The implications for the future of college are profound.

Coursera is only the tip of the iceberg of an explosion of non-collegiate higher education providers. They range from libraries and museums to media companies and software makers, not to mention a burgeoning number of online providers just like Coursera. Microsoft and Google are both offering more than 75 certificate programs. The American Museum of Natural History has its own graduate school, which offers a Ph.D. in comparative biology and a Master of Arts degree in teaching. It also provides six-week online courses on subjects such as the solar system, evolution, climate change, and water, with an extra fee for obtaining graduate credit.

These players will become increasingly competitive with higher education, catering to the part-time, older, and adult learners who are increasingly important to the economy and are underserved by higher education. In the future, owing to automation, workforce specialization, and COVID unemployment, there will be a ballooning number of students coming to higher education for short, nondegree programs for the purpose of gaining new skills to increase their earnings or change fields throughout their lives.

Fragmented education for a fragmented society

While pushing the boundaries of choice among providers can be a boon to students, the transformation poses the real danger that there will be two distinct models of colleges. The one with face-to-face instruction, residential learning, and all the trappings of traditional higher education, including degrees—will be available for more affluent, largely white and Asian students. The other—for lower-income and mostly Black and Latino underrepresented students and adult learners—will be delivered online by nontraditional providers, including brand-name companies and cultural agencies. This education will tend to be more practical, cheaper, and shorter, awarding certificates and micro credentials rather than degrees.

As our society becomes more fragmented and divided, we have reason to worry that higher education’s transformation will further fragment us. College is likely to be an increasingly individualized experience, aimed at connecting people to new uses of knowledge rather than creating common knowledge. “All things considered” may soon become “one thing considered,” with each person determining what they want that thing to be.

To ensure equity and a common framework for understanding, we must redefine educational equity for the current era. The old industrial-era definition focuses on providing all students with access to the same educational process for the same length of time. However, our knowledge of learning has grown to recognize that students learn at different rates but can achieve the same results. Today our notion of equity must assure equal access to the same learning outcomes and provide students with the differential resources they require to achieve the same result.

The burden of student loans is too great for students to bear in an era when everyone needs new knowledge. Prior to the 1980s, we helped low-income students finance their education through grants rather than loans. We need public investment in free public education from preschool through the first two years of college, to expand last-dollar private-sector scholarship programs, and ensure that students have not only financial aid but the choice to attend the type of institution they want to go to—an online college or a residential institution.

Equally important, we need to reintroduce a common curriculum to strengthen social bonds. General education should focus on the shared human experience—linking our past with our present and future, our heritage with the realities that will confront us today and tomorrow.

In the new Coursera world that will be increasingly corporatized, we need to ensure that we don’t lose our core values, our ethics, and our ability to tell fact from fiction. Education can emphasize our shared heritage and the ability to understand that the good life is not only measured in earnings but in our creativity to solve new problems and in caring for each other and the future of the planet.

Arthur Levine is Distinguished Scholar of Higher Education at New York University and president emeritus of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and Teachers College, Columbia University. Most recently, he is the author with Scott Van Pelt of the forthcoming book, The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future (Johns Hopkins University Press, September 2021).

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