Can MOOCs Help High School Students Get into College? It Depends …

When massive open online courses (MOOCs) began growing in popularity around 2012, many experts predicted they would change the way people all over the world gain online access to higher education. But as the demographics of MOOC enrollees have expanded to include high school students, some colleges and universities are left to decide how much significance to give to this often polarizing learning platform.

MOOCs, which are free and vary in duration, structure, and coursework, are available to anyone with an Internet connection. Typically, thousands of students from all over the world are simultaneously enrolled in a single class on a range of topics — from computer programming to music composition — taught by professors at universities including Harvard and Stanford, among many others. For many courses, students can choose to purchase a certificate of completion.

Although MOOCs were and still are touted as educational equalizers, critics cite the fact that completion rates are staggeringly low; furthermore, most of the participants (69 percent) already possess at least a bachelor’s degree, and most (58 percent) are men.

In 2013, the completion rate for courses taken through the largest MOOC platform, Coursera, was only 4 percent, and the rates for other providers are similar. Many theorize this is because there are no incentives to keep a student in the class — academic or financial — and a majority of those who sign up may have no intention of finishing in the first place. Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller has argued that this percentage is still promising, and that even though tens of thousands of “browsers” drop out of MOOCs, the thousands of people who complete a course represent a success.

The coursework in MOOCs is geared toward college-level learners, but this summer, The New York Times noted an uptick in the prevalence of MOOCs listed on undergraduate student applications. “Among the millions of people who have signed up for [MOOCs],” the article said, “there are now an untold number of teenagers looking for courses their high schools do not offer, and often, as a bonus, to nab one more exploit that might impress the college of their dreams.”

While some high school students may be using MOOCs to supplement their secondary educations, college admissions counselors like Jarrid Whitney worry that students who pack in extracurricular activities, like MOOCs, may be missing the point.

“My fear is that students try to do too much to get into college instead of just enjoying the experience [of being in high school],” says Whitney, who is executive director of admissions and financial aid at California Institute of Technology (Caltech), a private math and science university with roughly 1,000 undergraduate students.

This year, Whitney says Caltech received 6,507 applications for just 235 spots in the freshman class.

At the same time, he says MOOCs are a great way for students who may be coming from under-resourced school districts to gain experience in higher-level math and science classes, which he says demonstrates to admissions counselors a student’s interest in these subjects.

“We look for ways in which students showcase their passion for STEM,” Whitney says. “It’s always great if a MOOC, especially in a STEM area, helps them cultivate or inspire such a passion. … What matters most is what they learned from it.”

Even so, a student’s completion of a MOOC will not counterbalance poor academic performance in high school. Whitney says classroom performance and test scores still weigh heavily on whether a student is admitted to Caltech.

Nearby, at Pomona College in Claremont — another small, highly selective private liberal arts college — Director of Admissions Adam Sapp echoes Whitney’s stance on MOOCs.

“MOOCs can help students pursue idiosyncratic interests or dive deeper in an area where they may desire expertise beyond the high school textbook, but in general, these are low-stakes, short-term experiences,” Sapp said in an email. “Students should not be building extracurricular résumés by enrolling in loads of MOOCs. … If a student takes a MOOC, I do like to know, but it’s not going to drive the committee’s admission decision.”

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), says that as unconventional learning continues to evolve, there might be a way to incorporate MOOCs into the college application process. NACAC has never surveyed its high school and college admissions counselor members, but Hawkins says the counselors he’s spoken with have expressed a common view on MOOCs.

“The consensus is that it depends … on two points: if the student took the MOOC through the institution where they’re applying, and if it fits into the overall picture of the student’s educational path,” he says.

Hawkins agrees, though, that academic performance and test scores receive more weight in admissions decisions and says that, for now, NACAC members aren’t pushing their students to enroll in MOOCs.

“But,” he says, “they [do] advise students that it’s not a bad idea.”

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.