MITx And The Changing Higher Education Game

I was at a dinner last week about technology and higher education, and the one thing the speakers all agreed on was that America’s elite universities—Harvard and Princeton were the particular examples they cited—were just fundamentally and totally opposed to expanding the number of students they serve and this is a fixed point of the landscape. And then there’s MIT: “on Monday, MIT is announcing that for the first time it will offer credentials – under the name ‘MITx’ – to students who complete the online version of certain courses, starting with a pilot program this spring.”

Fancy American colleges engage in a lot of cartel-like behavior, but outside the realm of athletics they don’t have much in the way of formal cartel powers. The accreditation process creates substantial barriers to new entry, but there’s little ability to discipline and punish incumbents who want to engage in poaching behavior. So even if 49 of America’s top fifty universities don’t want to seriously explore the use of information technology to expand the number of students they serve, they can’t actually stop MIT—which it seems to me has long had a kind of fussy diligence about undergraduate education that the Ivies lack—from plowing ahead. Of course an “MITx” degree won’t carry the same prestige and market value as an “MIT” degree. But an MIT degrees carries a lot of prestige and market value. Even if people heavily discount the meaning of the “x” this puts a lot of pressure on a lot of middling institutions while simultaneously pressuring Dartmouth and the University of Texas and everyone else to think harder about deploying their own “x” offerings.