In my little corner of the world where I study credentialism, labor markets, technology and inequality today’s announcement from Coursera is pretty huge:
The First Lady, Michelle Obama took to the stage as a keynote speaker at the Women’s Veterans’ Employability Summit today to announce Coursera’s new partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA).
The joint partnership provides one free Coursera Verified Certificate to every US Veteran to help improve employability skills in high-demand fields such as data science and entrepreneurship. Coursera and the VA are also teaming up to launch 20 Veteran-facilitated Learning Hubs across the country to promote interactive learning experiences for Veterans to increase online accessibility and support.
The VA will endorse Coursera to 21 million US Veterans through their Veteran Employment Center. This effort will expose Veteran learners to industry relevant education and help them master new skills to succeed in today’s workforce. Visit the Veteran Employment Center to login and learn how to redeem your one free credential voucher.
Seriously, I emailed my chair and said, “they’re turning my dissertation and manuscript into a satire.” Thanks, Obama.
First, a little cursory background. Coursera is a major Massive Open Online Course provider. MOOCs provide (mostly) free online content for anyone who can log in. Coursera had to make a hard “pivot” when selling its platform to universities didn’t go too well. It turns out some people want to learn for the love of learning but other people want something that will get them a job. So, Coursera started offering certificates of completion (i.e. “credentials) for a fee, of course. Then they decided to go after employers by offering corporate training solutions. I suspect they found, like a for-profit college executive once told me they discovered, that employers aren’t nearly as interested in training workers as we seem to think they are. I use “we” loosely. I am not “we”.
Let me tell you something. If you ever want to get rich do two things. One, find some way that inequality is being reproduced and then tell the government that you can fix that for the bargain basement price of free.99.
That’s what for-profit colleges did.
By the mid-1990s, the dot-com bubble was glistening in the sun of a thousand Clintons. Massive speculation and actual expansion of the Internet had the sector riding high.
In addition, the federal government was staring down something called the Y2K crisis. It seems silly now but this was a real thing. The world was going to end because computers had not been programmed to register “2000” as a year.
For-profit colleges went to private capital firms and said, “look here, people think the Internet is the best thing since sliced bread. That’s great news for people selling the Internet as a good job. Plus, the government needs trained seals to reprogram whatzits to recognize the year 2000. We can do that for the bargain basement price of free.99…aggregated and plus interest, of course.”
In the language of my people, the public sector labor market legitimized for-profit credentials as a short term solution for on-demand training.
It just so happened that the federal government runs the public sector and federal student aid programs.
It’s mad convenient, yo. It is also why, in my humble opinion, you will never, ever get real “reform” of the for-profit college sector. But I digress…
I’ve been asked, by all kinds of audiences, what could make for-profit colleges “work”, in the sense that traditional colleges don’t have to worry about being called before the Senate even though they mostly do about the same thing for-profits do.
With this, I guess the cat’s out of the bag. The secret is making the labor market pay a premium for their credentials.
It turns out that is really hard to do. Heritage and tradition and STATUS are hard to earn, even harder to lose once you’ve earned it, and works in conjunction with but also independent of moneyed interests.
In lieu of that, you can decide to just go for the money.
If that becomes your plan, a partnership with the federal government is about as good as it gets.
Coursera is, yet again, following in the footsteps of for-profit colleges (not a huge surprise given the connections).
With this partnership, Coursera credentials gain the legitimacy of the Veteran’s Administration. Note the press release’s statement: “The VA will endorse Coursera to 21 million US Veterans through their Veteran Employment Center.”
Endorsements are not a small matter when you’re trying to convince people that your piece of paper is valuable. We went so far as to put God on the dollar to make paper mean something.
The VA also provides a captive audience/market.
Veterans rely greatly on the formal and informal mechanisms of the VA, not least of all because they’re kind of busy and the VA owes them benefits. If the VA says these things are real and signals that through its formal employment center mechanisms, that has some meaning.
Back in the 1990s when for-profit colleges were trying to justify massive investment in their brand of credentials, they turned to the public sector to build a labor market for their credentials.
They used the rhetoric of democratic access to do that while simultaneously promising market “efficiencies”, i.e. lower costs.
They went after contracts with local, state and federal government. They produced new types of credentials in things like “homeland security” and “doctorates in security”.
These partnerships helped for-profit colleges build out their processes and develop a market.
But it comes with a price.
Coursera has paid a great deal of attention to the for-profit college sector’s successes. It should also learn from its quagmires.
At some point, regulation follows all that endorsing.
And compliance is expensive. It costs money and status. I’m not sure Coursera has enough of either to go the distance in that game unless they change their entire business model.
The other lesson is that the military is a big get, but it’s not big enough for a sustainable business model at scale. God, I just typed that like a McKinsey consultant, but go with me here. By the end of the 1990s for-profit colleges were warning investors that the shrinking public sector produced an opportunity to train workers who once developed skills in the military (good) but shrinkage also meant fewer labor market options for graduates (bad).
The vicissitudes of the public sector as a labor market giveth but it also taketh away.
But for now, this could be a watershed moment for the little MOOC credentials that could. They’re now draped in the flag and Mrs. Obama’s stellar polling numbers.
Coursera credentials are for God, for country, for capitalism, Amen.
Part 2 probably goes into the ridiculousness of the skills gap ethos in this announcement, competition for labor, and why “learning hubs” aren’t just “schools”.