Can States Outlaw Free Online Education?

Minnesota requires a registration fee, even when courses are offered for free, online. Is this justifiable? Can it be enforced?

I suppose every state in the U.S. would be guilty of creating laws that ended up biting them. Or perhaps they just don’t enforce them the way Minnesota recently did. Regardless, Minnesota was mocked for interfering with free online education. Why the heck would a state like Minnesota, known for top-5-in-the-nation academics, prevent something so obviously beneficial?

A while back the state decided to regulate higher education providers to prevent such schools from swindling students. There are still considerable calls today to have the state crack down on for-profit colleges. Part of the regulation process required a substantial fee from the institutions. This sort of regulation worked okay when things were “analog”, but today’s a new day.

The digital age has opened the gates to a new world of fluidity and affordability. Intellectual property like music and movies have gone way down in price and the ability to learn about almost any given subject is at anyone’s disposal: entries on Wikipedia, videos from the Khan Academy and TED. Physical barriers like books and classrooms aren’t as necessary as they once were—if at all.

So along came a company called Coursera, an enterprise with the goal of educating as many people as possible. They are doing this by partnering up with universities across the world and having the universities offer their courses online free of charge using the Coursera website. Perhaps the selling point for universities to do this is the good will gesture; perhaps it’s a sales pitch to have free course-takers formally enroll in their institutions. Either way, the State of Minnesota wasn’t buying.

They informed Coursera that it was in violation of State law to have these partnering universities offering their courses to Minnesotans without permission from the State (without paying the registration fees.) Then a small, but key action was taken. Instead of playing ball with the State, Coursera simply said, in effect, “Okay, then. Your residents can’t enjoy our services.”

This took George Roedler at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education by surprise. In the age old battle of citizen vs. State, the State has enjoyed an advantage because of the necessity to physically be present to break the law. With the Internet, though … .

Roedler started the back-peddling when contacted by (’s coverage was the main inspiration behind this piece. See their full story here.) This now being the year 2012, he realized that in this case the State has lost this advantage. Said Roedler, “It’s not like we’re sending the police out if somebody signs up online.”

It’s also not just the difficulty with enforcement, but a question of legitimacy. wrote, “The law’s intent is to protect Minnesota students from wasting their money on degrees from substandard institutions, Roedler says. 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.) 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.”

And here’s where the public dog-piled on Minnesota. Here are some comments from readers of and
Eric J.: “Looks like common sense lost the day. Imagine that a free education is considered illegal.”Joe O.:“So, if I live in Minnesota and I tutor my nephew once a week in mathematics, am I breaking the law?”

Geoff: “This is why America is losing its edge in innovation. Government officials are poorly educated themselves.”

peteTheBee: “Am I the only one thinking this would never have happened under the Ventura administration?”

nskowyra: “I’m from minnesota, I gotta say, this is quite unMinnesotan if I’ve ever heard it.”

PorteroDeArte: “For once I’m happy to live in Utah.”

What this is really about is the nature of the government institution: a force which can protect and restricts at the same time. Like other forces out there it can be used for good or bad. And in an ever-developing world that we live in, often the most important variable in determining this is time.

It’s not 1990 anymore, and Roedler didn’t seem to understand this. He said he hoped he could work with the universities offering their courses to obtain the registration. He wanted their money, and this is a bit jarring when you realize that it wasn’t enough that these colleges were offering their courses for free; Minnesota wanted them to pay to offer their courses for no charge.

Recognizing this law’s ineffectiveness and inappropriateness in this case, Minnesota recently decided to not enforce this law against universities working with Coursera. These are the kinds of transitions that a government needs to make as technology proves laws useless, or worse: more harm than good.


Read more in Education.

This was previously published on New Plateaus.

Image credit:  jurvetson/Flickr

About Brandon Ferdig

Brandon Ferdig is writer from Minneapolis, MN. He shares his personal growth pieces, human interest stories, and commentary at his blog. He is currently writing a book titled New Plateaus in China, a compilation of travelogue, personal experience, human interest, and social observations from China. You can follow Brandon on Twitter @brandonferdig.


  1. wellokaythen says:

    I’ll be the first to admit that faculty unions and teachers’ unions have interests that may run counter to student interests. In pursuing their own interests they may obstruct education in some ways.

    But, are people thinking that edu-companies are MORE committed to student success? They have LESS self-interest when it comes to helping students learn? The profit motive is a kinder, gentler force for good than teachers’ interests? Guffaw.

    And let’s drop the whole “competition” and “free market” mythology about online education. We’re talking about companies that are seeking monopoly positions, not trying to stimulate competition. A big corporate monopoly is no more efficient or flexible than a faculty union, and generally much greedier.

  2. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Hmmmm. Did someone say, “Blackboard?”

  3. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Here’s the deal, and my critique will come in two parts. Coursera is, I believe, a Trojan horse, and its purpose is to destroy our higher education system.

    “They are doing this by partnering up with universities across the world and having the universities offer their courses online free of charge using the Coursera website.”

    Nope, the no-charge bit is very temporary. It’s intended to get a foot in the door. Actually Ng (who claims only to be interested in student welfare) would not have set up a company if he didn’t intend to monetize Coursera soon. College administrators are VERY interested because it’s a way to get rid of tenure (point one.) Just as everyone is realizing that today’s students need much more direct engagement from professors, we get this move to have big anonymous lectures by elite university professors.

    Of course these are the very professors who are generally known as bad teachers, but, no matter, “prestige” is supposed to trump teaching skill here. So what administrators hope will happen is that that they can close buildings, and stop hiring tenure-track faculty. Instead they’ll substitute part-time adjuncts (maybe masters degree level) who’ll proctor exams and maybe work with students who need help. No reason to tenure them. It’s crazy, of course (point two) because these courses are much more like a Great Course than a real university course. So they’re likely not to be very effective. Teaching is basically an intimate process, but this is going in the opposite direction. Follow the absolutely decernable interest, not the happy-face ideology.

    The idea, in the face of an almost post-literate generation of college students (I’ve taught them for thirty years) is nutty. And it serves the interests of those who are out to serve the destruction of education, particularly liberal education, in the US. The idea that elite university people are behind this is presumptuous on their part.

    I have a really bad feeling about this one.

    • wellokaythen says:

      Ah, a kindred spirit.

      What has surprised a lot of college and university administrations is how expensive online education can be to administer. It is not as big a savings as many people hoped. You would think that not requiring classroom space and hiring part-timers would save loads of money, but that has not really materialized. There are technology, personnel, and training costs that make it not such a great deal unless you can do it on a massive level and benefit from economies of scale (U. of Phoenix, for example).

      Another downside is that in general each institution is heavily reliant on only one courseware package produced by only one company, in a field that has very little competition at the moment. It’s in the company’s best interest to enforce obsolescence every few years and require the school to buy a new version. (Newer is always better, right? And newer is always more expensive, oddly enough….) Or, that company gets bought out by another company and that software is now unsupported and you have to buy a new one. The courseware providers have schools over a barrel.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    Of course the state government was silly to try to attack free courses in such a fashion. A totally clumsy way to make a point.

    On the other hand, there’s a part of me (perhaps the self-interested part that lives on a teacher’s salary) that wonders if the old proverb is true that you get what you pay for. Someone somewhere invested money to set up these systems. Someone had to get paid to develop them, and someone is getting paid to maintain the websites and administer the grading system. At least, I HOPE someone is getting paid to grade all those assignments. If you say there aren’t any grades, then I’m wondering how you know you’ve learned what you’re supposed to have learned.

    I’m wondering how a free online class is really much different from just going online and looking up the answers yourself on your own time.

    I think it’s totally hysterical that people now use “innovation” as an absolute good, meaning the more innovation the better, and “we’re better because we innovate more than you do.” This basically assumes that newer is better, and the more newness you have the better everything will be. Supersititious baloney, but baloney that’s making a lot of money today.

    Oh, well. It will all work itself out in the job market and in daily life. Nothing to lose from free classes except your time.

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