October 24, 2012

A Little Victory In The Fight Against Bad Regulations

By: Matthew Hurtt

A decades-old Minnesota law would have prohibited residents from utilizing online higher education resources like California-based Coursera under the guise of “consumer protection” had it not been for the public backlash last week.

Minnesota Statutes 136A.61 to 136A.71 require postsecondary institutions to file with the state and pay a number of costly fees to protect Minnesotans from higher education scams. This issue was first reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Coursera posted this notice on its site:

 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.

The intent of the original law was probably not to restrict online education choices, since it was enacted long before the Internet became widely accessible, but the unintended consequences have placed an undue burden on Coursera’s educational partners and could restrict educational choice for Minnesotans.

When Coursera launched in April of this year as the brain-child of Stanford computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, it announced prestigious partners like the University of Michigan, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania. Since its launch, Coursera has added 29 more partners, including Vanderbilt, Duke the University of Virginia, and a number of international schools.

According to their site, Coursera is “committed to making the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it” in a variety of fields: Humanities, Medicine, Biology, Social Sciences, Mathematics, Business, Computer Science, and many others.

The point is, these partners provide top quality education to thousands of students on their campuses every year. To date, more than 1.7 million people have taken at least one Coursera course. The institutions that have partnered with Coursera are not the sorts of scam institutions from which Minnesota should be protecting its citizens (if you believe the state should be “protecting” citizens from “scam” institutions at all, but that’s beside the point for this piece).

Their only crime is that they haven’t shelled out thousands of dollars to the State of Minnesota for permission to educate its residents.

The public backlash against the notice caused the Minnesota Office of Higher Education to backtrack on its original decision to enforce the law. Larry Pogemiller, the Director or the MOHE, issued this statement:

Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they’re free. No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera.


Pogemiller further explained that he would work with the legislature and the governor in January to modify the language of the statute.

While the Minnesota government has been responsive to the public outcry and appears to be proactive in adjusting the laws currently on the books, the fact remains that the established “protections” (regulations) would have seriously stifled education innovation in Minnesota had they been enforced.

This is another minor victory in the ongoing struggle against government regulations. Kudos to Coursera for their win in Minnesota.

Matthew Hurtt is a libertarian activist, hell-bent on exposing ridiculous government regulations. Follow him on Twitter @matthewhurtt. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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