The financial value of a university degree comes from the diploma. Employers see that a student has met certain standards. All the degree represents, however, is the certification that a student has completed a package of courses, typically 40 to 50. Universities are in the business of packaging courses into degrees.
The advent of "massively open online" courses presents an opportunity to new packagers who come along and, after evaluating the quality and non-duplication of courses, confer degrees, perhaps consisting of 10 courses offered via Coursera, 10 from edX, eight from Udacity, five from StraighterLine or Saylor and 12 "live" classes at the local state university or community college.
At present, the archaic accreditation rules make that impossible even though such a package of courses would cost less than half the current price of a degree, and most courses would be prepared by accredited, even elite, institutions, or use academics who have done much of their teaching at those schools.
Yes, this new approach to credentialing competence is complicated and needs oversight. For example: How do students prove they are doing the online work? Some instruction calls for face-to-face contact. And many benefits of higher education relate to non-classroom learning and socialization. Still, the question should be: Do the barriers imposed ensure quality and protect students, or stifle competition, innovation, access and affordability?
Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches economics at Ohio University, and is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.