Minnesota Backs Down on Restricting Free Online Classes

Published October 29, 2012

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education reversed its threat to enforce a 20-year-old statute that would have prevented residents from taking free online college classes from California-based education provider Coursera. After several publications reported the ban on free Internet classes, MOHE backed down from enforcing the law and said it will work with legislators to update the statute.

Thirty-three accredited universities, including Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins, currently enroll more than 1.7 million people in Coursera’s free online classes.

Widespread Internet opposition to the law went viral after the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Katherine Mangan on October 18. Mangan reported the MHOE told Coursera the company’s courses violated a state law requiring all education providers within Minnesota’s borders to pay a licensing fee. Slate and Forbes picked up the story, prompting the MOHE’s reversal on October 19.

“Government has been slow to adapt to the reality of online education, and the Minnesota account provides another example,” said Jami Lund, the project manager for iLearn at the Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank. “The state should never use power to limit options without a compelling public interest.”

Licensing and Renewal Fees
Before MOHE decided not to enforce the law, Minnesota residents attempting to log on to Coursera’s Web site received this message: “Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.”

Students currently cannot earn credits for Coursera classes. Minnesota crediting fees range from $250 for one course, but can rise to $12,000 for several courses and include a $1,200 annual renewal fee.

“As the demand for and quality of online education continues to increase, states will have to rethink the legal monopolies they’ve granted select universities,” said Michael Van Beek, education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “And these universities will have to rethink their business model.”


Image by HackNY.