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Free Education? Not In My State!

Coursera is a California-based startup that partners with top-tier universities to provide free online courses to people around the world. Sounds like a pretty great service, doesn't it?

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education doesn't think so. They told Coursera to stop offering free courses to Minnesota residents. Why? Under Minnesota state law, universities cannot offer courses to residents without the approval of the Office of Higher Education.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

It’s unclear how the law could be enforced when the content is freely available on the Web, but Coursera updated its Terms of Service to include the following caution:

Notice for Minnesota Users:

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.

As the Chronicle points out, the purported intent of the Minnesota law is to prevent residents from entering into substandard degree-granting programs. However, Coursera does not offer degrees—it merely allows users to take online classes from degree-granting institutions. Among Coursera's partnering universities are Columbia, Brown, Stanford, Emory, University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins.

 Slate's Will Oremus spoke to George Roedler at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, who clarified that the state isn't necessarily trying to block Coursera—officials just want Coursera's partnering universities to go through Minnesota's tedious and expensive approval process! From Slate:

State law prohibits degree-granting institutions from offering instruction in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. (The fee can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, plus a $1,200 annual renewal.) [...]

"It's not like we're sending the police out if somebody signs up online," Roedler adds. "It's just that the school is operating contrary to state law."

You've got to hand it to the vigilant men and women of Minnesota's Office of Higher Education: They're certainly doing a bang-up job serving the state bureaucracy.  Meanwhile, any Minnesota resident who takes a Coursera course within state borders will be violating the company's Terms of Service. So . . . well done, Minnesota?