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An American In Paris: How MOOCs Could Make Diverse Recruitment Actions Affirmative

By on May 8, 2012
Domestic, International, Minorities, MOOCs, Opinion, Required, Universities & Colleges

Gherkin Stitch, London
Photo Credit: Ian Muttoo via Compfight

By Paul Glader, Managing Editor of Wired Academic

PARIS – How could massively online open courses (MOOCs) disrupt the admissions process 10 years from now at schools that are experimenting with MOOCs: Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and University of Pennsylvania?

I thought about that question during a recent visit to SciencesPo, the elite political science university in Paris, where many of the ruling elite in French and Parisian society (including new French president Francois Hollande) matriculate. The group of Americans I was with had lunch with several faculty and students who are involved in an affirmative action program – the Priority Education Agreements or CEP – that recruits bright minority youth from high schools around France to apply to the elite institution.

Popping Into The Bubble of French Elitism

“When you don’t have a political elite, you have big problems in a country,” said a school administrator. “But your elite university needs to reflect your country.”

The young people in CEP typically speak French and are very well-integrated into French society but have parents originally from North African countries such as Tunisia, Libya, Morocco or Algeria. Many of them do not have the financial resources or the parental or community encouragement that would send them to SciencesPo.

An administrator at the university told us that SciencesPo, with 10,000 students, realized it needed a more diverse student body than its largely white, French-origin students who are sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, politicians and teachers. “This was a way to transform our institution,” he said. Since the CEP program started a decade ago, the program has brought 860 of these students to SciencesPo (more than 100 per year now) and the school has found they have performed just as well as their counterparts.

“We had tremendous teachers who motivated us to go into this,” said one young man in the program. “This is a real privilege to get to the best university in France.”

The New York Times reported on the program (In France, A Bastion of Privilege No More) in 2011:

With 40 percent of the student body now coming from outside of France, Mr. Descoings and the institution he heads have embraced a future that looks very different from the world he grew up in — a world where “everybody’s children went to the same schools — as we say in France, education was a form of ‘social reproduction’ — these students did not have success given to them at birth. The world is very different when you have to win what you get.”

The afternoon visit made me think about the future and potential of the MOOC trend growing in the US and how it might change future recruiting at elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge in the UK and the eight Ivy League colleges in the United States. I asked the SciencesPo administrator if his school is considering MOOC classes as another way to educate a larger number of capable young people?

“In France, I think not,” he said. School officials are looking into online programs. But it’s not very far along.

How MOOCs Could Disturb the Elites

Many Ivy League schools practice some form of Affirmative Action or creating a “diverse” student body that reflects American society and adds a variety of views and backgrounds. Already, a middle class or poor student accepted at most Ivy League universities in the US will not have to pay tuition (it’s subsidized by the massive endowment funds).

The SciencesPo innovation is that it is actively recruiting the best and brightest minority applicants from high schools rather than – as elite US colleges do – leaving that process up to SATs, ACTs and the normal admission procedure, meaning it still requires students (and parents) to market the student in a way the school wants.

One amazing thing about the MOOC classes of edX (Harvard and MIT’s project) or Coursera (a For-profit startup involving Stanford, Princeton, UPenn and others) is that it opens up potential to go a step further in finding and recruiting talent, merit-based academic talent, in hidden places – from Africa, China or inner-city Detroit. In Sebastian Thrun’s first MOOC experiment at Stanford University last year, dozens of the more than 100,000 students in the class received perfect scores. None of them were Stanford students! If one can verify these students continue performing well in similar classes and are not cheating, why shouldn’t they be drafted (from Estonia, Mozambique, Argentina or wherever they are from) to attend MIT or Stanford?

With massive endowments at schools like Stanford and Harvard, it would be possible for these schools to identify a few MOOC standouts each year and to recruit them to their institutions full time. Doing so, is like placing a bet on future Nobel Prize winners and bringing the best scientific minds to America and to their campus.

Will the next Albert Einstein matriculate through a MOOC course onto the campus of Princeton?

It wouldn’t surprise me.

And he or she might be from rural China or metropolitan Rio de Janeiro.

The winner in this equation: Knowledge, merit-based learning and the dominance of top institutions if they truly bring in the elite minds rather than just the elite’s wealth to their school.

The losers in this equation: The private school children who may have the wealth for coaching, grooming and essay-editing but who are not that smart. A few of them will be edged out soon by MOOC students from emerging markets, students who are more talented, deserving and grateful: those who didn’t come with a silver spoon in their Prada backpack.

Paul Glader

Glader is Managing Editor of He’s a Bosch Fellow for Young American Leaders in Germany during 2011-2012. Follow him on Twitter @PaulGlader



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