Minnesota ‘Protects’ Students by Banning Coursera

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Minnesota is the home to some of the most indebted college graduates in the country, according to a document released earlier this week. California-based Institute for College Access and Success has published a paper that ranks Minnesota third in the country for the amount of debt carried by its students, writing that an average student from a MN four-year college carries nearly $30,000 in education loans upon graduation.

Minnesota's students just might appreciate free, high-quality education — but the state won't allow it.

A survey of 2011 graduates shows that they are leaving school carrying $26,600 debt load, on average, which is an uptick of 5% from the year before. And many believe that the true picture is even more dire, since the report includes only the balances carried by graduates from non-profit schools.

The state also clocks in near the top for the percentage of students taking out student loans, with 71% resorting to loans to finance their education. It is also a home to two of the schools that made the institute's "high-debt colleges" list. A typical student graduating from Minneapolis College of Art and Design has a loan balance of $43,035, and those getting their education from College of St. Scholastica in Duluth leave with debt totaling, on average, $41,282.

Thursday's report is the latest to document the steady swelling of student loan debt that has provoked protests from parents and policymakers

At the same time as the institute's debt report was making headlines, those in Minnesota who are experimenting with different approaches to bringing down the price of college education were dealt an unexpected setback when the state's Office of Higher Education sent out a notice to Coursera, a pioneering online education provider, that it must stop offering its services to students in Minnesota.

The reason behind the move? A decades-old law that says that colleges and universities must have permission from the state to offer classes within its borders.

The move led Coursera to clarify its terms of service to exclude those who wish to avail themselves to the hosted content but reside in Minnesota. The new terms ask students to agree that they will not take any Coursera massive online open courses if they either live in the state or spend a substantial amount of time there.

George Roedler, manager of institutional registration and licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher education, clarifies that his office's issue isn't with Coursera per se, but with the universities that offer classes through its website. State law prohibits degree-granting institutions from offering instruction in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. (The fee can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, plus a $1,200 annual renewal.) That means that it's Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, the University of Melbourne, et al. that are violating Minnesota law by partnering with Coursera to offer courses that Minnesota residents can take for free.

Roedler goes on to explain that the law is in place to prevent students from wasting money on a degree from a non-accredited institution. He remained unpersuaded by the argument that this can hardly occur in Coursera's case as all the content through their website is free and it is not a degree-granting institution.

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