One of the most rapidly changing spheres of American society is the realm of education. Over the last generation, higher education has increasingly become a prerequisite to social mobility. The challenges of accommodating such an increase in appetite for learning have been profound. In the pursuit of expanding education beyond its gates, Harvard recently partnered with MIT to launch edX, a series of Massive Online Open Courses. Continually expanding and wildly popular, edX is built to become a comprehensive alternative to traditional education. So far the project bodes well. Harvard’s contribution to the project should be commended, and the overall trend toward affordable education continued.
A non-profit venture, edX was created to further a mission of accessible education started by MITx in 2011. With $60 million in startup capital provided by Harvard and MIT, edX constitutes one of the largest investments made in online education. Evidence suggests it will need the money. Online, accessible education has so far proved a lethal industry for some of its entrants: Columbia attempted its own program that failed in 2003, and a similar effort by Yale, Oxford, and Stanford closed six years ago due to insufficient funds. We can only hope that edX does not suffer a similar fate, as the status quo is in desperate need of change.
It is a foregone conclusion that many traditional avenues of higher education have become prohibitively expensive. Coupled with an increase in the proportion of employers requiring degrees, this dynamic has only made the need for alternative resources all the more pressing. Due to increasing costs and high demand, schools have become more expensive than ever. In the vacuum left by a lack of accessible, low-cost education, for-profit colleges have exploited the American public, promising affordable degrees that more often than not leave students mired in more debt.
An estimated 60 percent of the 20 million students in the United States borrow to finance an education. Among those who borrow, median debt is $20,000. State Colleges, traditionally a cost-effective means of receiving an education, still leave students with a median debt of $17,700. At private universities, this figure is $22,380, and at for-profit institutions, $32,650.
Harvard and its partner schools are truly breaking the mold in offering no-cost access to high-quality course material and resources to collaborate with others interested in scholarship. With the only prerequisites being an internet connection and a desire to learn, edX is one of the first genuinely open platforms for learning, one that does not discriminate by socioeconomic status. Equally important, the program provides participants with free certificates upon completion, a crucial way of signaling marketable skills to employers.
According to the edX website, more than 140 schools have expressed interest in joining the program, and there are plans to include as many courses as possible in the coming months and years. Since the inception of public education, universal access to information and scholarship has remained an elusive goal. The expansion of quality educational resources that is edX could perhaps prove to be a very large step toward the fulfillment of this mission.