Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Coming Revolution in College Admissions Moocs (Massive Open Online Courses) Can Better Predict College Success Than Sats

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Coming Revolution in College Admissions Moocs (Massive Open Online Courses) Can Better Predict College Success Than Sats

Article excerpt

This month, admissions officers at America's most prestigious colleges are scrambling to put the final touches on letters admitting the Class of 2019. Just as students from around the world are vying for a limited number of spots in America's best colleges, higher-learning institutions are competing to attract the best and the brightest.

While laptops and tablets have largely replaced paper-stuffed file folders in admissions office conference rooms, the process is still based on the same underlying information used generations ago: high school grade-point averages, SAT and ACT scores, extracurriculars, letters of recommendation and personal essays. But technology is poised to shake up the admissions game in a way that will level the playing field for students in America and abroad.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, offered by dozens of elite colleges give students a chance to prove that they're ready for a university - and in turn, the institution gets an accurate measure of whether a student is prepared for its academics, helping refine what is quite an imprecise science.

But this new way to assess applicants isn't great for everyone. It could become harder for U.S. students with certain social and economic advantages - children of alumni, and those who can afford the top high schools, SAT prep classes and tutors - to get into elite colleges.

Right now, there's not much real knowledge of prospective students' aptitude for advanced academic work. Instead, colleges are stuck with imperfect proxies: Grade-point averages are tricky to compare because grading standards vary widely among teachers and high schools. Personal essays could have been written by someone else. SAT scores are highly correlated with parental income, and students can learn strategies for maximizing their scores that have little to do with aptitude or achievement. Test scores aren't incredibly indicative of collegiate success, anyway. For example, economist Jesse Rothstein found that, after controlling for students' background characteristics, SAT scores predict only 2.7 percent of the variation in students' college grades.

Students are also in the dark. Traditionally, college has been what economists call an "experience good" - something you can't really understand until after the moment of purchase. This can result in bad matches: It's just one reason that more than one in four students who start college full-time drop out or transfer within three years.

Imperfect information also allows corruption to flourish. Since it's hard for a college to truly know which students will make the greatest contributions to the academic community, who's to say it's not the children of wealthy donors or influential politicians? Just last month, an investigation found that University of Texas President Bill Powers used "holistic" admissions criteria to admit the underqualified sons and daughters of various bigwigs in the Lone Star State. Meanwhile, well-off families pay thousands of dollars for SAT prep courses, essay-writing coaches and slots in high schools with a pipeline to the Ivy League.

This kind of behavior has become so common that many people have come to accept it as just another way the 1 percent get a leg up. But over the past three years, the very same elite institutions populated with these advantaged students have launched an online education movement that could someday leave the old admissions system in the dust. They've done something simple but profound: For the first time, high school students can take real courses from the world's greatest universities and demonstrate exactly how smart they are.

Through a nonprofit consortium called edX, Harvard, MIT, the University of Texas, the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, Caltech, the Sorbonne and dozens of other elite universities have begun offering complete online versions of their highly sought-after classes, free, to anyone with an Internet connection. …

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