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Cross-posted on Education Week

In my last blog I pointed out that the opportunities that any given student has for climbing up the greasy pole of social status and income when that student enters the workforce may be affected at least as much by who that student went to school with as by the things we educators focus on: curriculum, teaching, accountability systems and so on. The reasons for this range from the expectations that faculty have for the students in a school to the power of a college’s faculty and the graduates to help the members of that network get the best jobs as they rise up together. Now, let’s take a look at how this phenomenon might relate to a new and interesting phenomenon: the rise of MOOCs in our higher education institutions.

What seems to be emerging is a four-class MOOC universe. At the top are the elite universities that produce the courses. They will provide a grade but not credit for the courses they offer. Then come the second tier universities, which will provide credit to students who take the MOOC courses from the higher prestige institutions, provided that those students come to their campus and sign up as regular students at the regular price. What they have to offer is the credit, the prestige that comes with their brand, and support services to the students. And next down the pecking order are the institutions that will take the students’ money in exchange for the credit and the degree, with no requirement that the student attend the institution and no serious offer of support services.

MOOCs have—quite reasonably—been promoted as a boon for social mobility. After all, many students at the bottom of the social totem pole will get access to first rate professors, often bundled into courses with very high production values–students who might never have had access to high quality instruction before.

But there is another—darker—way to look at the rise of MOOCs from the perspective of social mobility. The big benefit from MOOC courses will go to those students who are the most motivated, most disciplined and best prepared, all of which is more likely to be found among students from well-off families than students who come from less educated, poorer families. But legislatures are now falling all over themselves to write legislation requiring higher education institutions to offer credit and degrees to students who will take MOOCs to get those degrees, and, sometimes, only MOOCs. Legislatures have been massively defunding their higher education systems, driving the cost to the student up and the quality down. Now they see MOOCs as a magical way to have their cake (provide higher education to their constituents) and eat it too (at very low cost).

But MOOCs are not a magical solution. Many of the students who are most dependent on the public university system are those whom the MOOCS will benefit the least in educational terms, because they lack the motivation, the self-assurance, the preparation, the literacy skills, the prior knowledge, the vocabulary and the study skills needed to get what they need from a remote lecturer, without the kind of support they would get in a traditional university that might compensate for at least some of these challenges. But the elephant in the room is the lack of access to the networks that resident college students get in their universities—networks of peers and professors—who can provide them with the connections to the people who can offer them the job opportunities and mentoring they need to really make it. These two challenges, taken together, will constitute a mighty barrier to success. And so the move to MOOCs, as I see it, may aggravate, not alleviate, the steadily widening disparity in incomes between our wealthiest and our poorest and, at the same time, make it ever more likely that the sons and daughters of the masters and mistresses of the universe will themselves become the next generation of masters and mistresses. That would be a shame.

Follow NCEE @CtrEdEcon.