Getting a higher education online?

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By Erin McCoy

It's about time there was a backlash against skyrocketing college tuition costs that are dooming countless young people in America to a lifetime of debt.

Coursera and edX are two examples of a new online movement to provide free courses in a broad range of subjects on a college level. And not just any college level - professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University are involved in edX courses, while Stanford University, Princeton, University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania professors will teach many of Coursera's upcoming classes. These are some of the most elite - and expensive - schools in the nation, electing to provide a free education for anyone who wants it.

Founders of these organizations have acknowledged that part of the population they hope to reach is international - students who are more than just one massive loan away from a good college education. For years, social entrepreneurs have recognized the computer as a doorway for even the world's poorest people to rise above their economic station; at least one organization has taken to installing single computers in small Indian towns, offering kids and adults an Internet connection and a window to the outside world that was never possible before. It's a noble endeavor, and addresses issues far beyond the prohibitive cost of education in our country today.

Of course, you don't get a Harvard or Stanford degree after you complete these classes - not yet anyway. You can pay a relatively small fee for a certificate of some kind, which acknowledges that you have taken the class and even what kind of score you received. We have yet to see how legitimate these will be considered when included on a resume or a portfolio. But depending on the content of the courses and the difficulty of the course material, why shouldn't an employer consider these legitimate training? Weekend conferences can count for resume fare - why not a six-week online course complete with homework assignments taught by a distinguished professor? Whether you were in a classroom or not, whether you paid or not, you gained that knowledge.

It's a matter of debate how much a Bachelor's degree is worth anymore. One thing we know for sure is it's almost impossible to "work your way through school" in only four or five years. But now, it seems a graduate degree is all that will suffice. Employers are less willing to just assume you're intelligent enough to learn something new based on the fact you have a degree. They need five years' experience, the highest possible degree, and as a result, the most indebted employees possible. This type of debt will have a serious impact on every young American's quality of life from now on. For many, buying a house is inconceivable, and debt-free living is years, even decades, away. Vacation is a luxury their parents experienced.

There's never been a better time to give a great idea a fighting chance. I hope we can all keep an open mind about this new online movement. An open mind is just about all we can afford.

Editor's note: Erin McCoy is a reporter at The Kentucky Standard in Bardstown.