Who needs affordable public universities when you can get a college education FOR FREE??!!

Students may soon be able to receive college credit for the free online courses that are reshaping higher education.

The American Council on Education announced Thursday that it is recommending degree credit for five courses offered by Coursera, a Mountain View-based company that provides "massive open online courses" from leading universities.

[...] Coursera, which now offers more than 200 open courses from 33 institutions, plans to seek the council's credit recommendations for more classes in the future, Ng said. Many of the courses are automated and require little oversight from instructors.

Yeah, because the least important part of a high quality education are the teachers.

Don't get me wrong—I'm not against exploiting new technologies. I'm absolutely loving all these free online courses (for example, Harvard's "Justice with Michael Sandel"). But taking an online course with "little oversight from instructors" is not the same thing as going to college. And I'm more than a little worried that cash-strapped lawmakers are going to seize upon these "free" and "low cost" online courses as an alternative to adequately funding higher education.

The history of higher education over the course of the 20th century was one of dramatic democratization. What used to be an opportunity reserved almost exclusively for the children of the elite was transformed into an American birthright, helping to build a thriving middle class in the process. Our nation's vast system of public and private colleges and universities is the envy of the world. I'm not saying it's perfect the way it is, but it's certainly served us well.

So while, sure, it's always reasonable to explore ways to deliver these services less expensively, cheapening a college degree benefits nobody. Which is, I'm afraid, what we are in the process of doing.