05/22/2012 12:13 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2012

An Alternative Admissions Path to Elite Colleges?

When Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced this month that they were forming a partnership to offer online courses free to the masses, they pledged $60 million to the effort, dubbed edX. That's about twice the median budget of four-year colleges and universities in the United States. All for courses that, for now, won't bring in a penny in tuition revenue.

Harvard and MIT are not alone. Their announcement followed closely behind a similar one just a few weeks earlier by another group of elite institutions: the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford and Princeton Universities. That effort, through a new company called Coursera, was backed by $16 million in venture capital.

With some real dollars at stake, do these elite universities know something about the future of higher education that the rest of us don't? Or with their billions in endowments, do they have the luxury of throwing money at ideas, to see which ones stick? Or are they simply altruistic, and want to provide free education to the world?

From where I sit, it doesn't seem like any of these universities have a business plan for these massive open online courses or MOOC's, as they are known. In recent weeks, at various gatherings, I've heard plenty of ideas for a business model, although I'm not sure all of them are viable. They could eventually follow the iTunes model and sell access to a course for $1.99. That starts adding up to real money if you get 100,000+ people to sign up. Depending on the course subject, they could sell access to corporate recruiters. That's essentially what Sebastian Thrun did last fall, when he sent the résumés of his best students from his Stanford MOOC to Google and other Silicon Valley companies.

Perhaps the best idea I've heard so far is that the universities could use these courses as an alternative admissions system. This makes sense given these institutions recruit far and wide to expand their pool of applicants in the hope of finding that perfect student. Most of the time they choose correctly. Sometimes they miss. Either way, it's a time consuming, difficult, and expensive process each and every year.

The MOOC's enable the elite universities to discover talented students participating in classes just like the ones offered on their campuses, and completing assignments made by their professors. It's an easier and cheaper way to find that diamond-in-the-rough student from a village in Turkey. And it's a safer bet that these students will ultimately succeed, given they're already doing the work.

The question that remains, of course, is scale. In this case, how much is too much? Thrun's Stanford course attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries. There were 1,000 students who had perfect or near-perfect scores on homework and tests. These elite universities already have too few spots for all the talented students who apply through regular methods. Maybe they don't want 1,000 more.

One thoughtful futurist at an elite institution, who is thinking about this model, told me that perhaps the alternative admissions method could feed a new school created at the university. That's where these students could come, in person or virtually, for a high-quality education, perhaps for their first two years before moving into the traditional university to finish their degree. Or maybe the new school within the university would take them through graduation. There are plenty of options, many of which would allow these elite institutions to answer their critics -- who want them to broaden enrollment as applications have skyrocketed -- by expanding classes at the same time they maintain their quality and air of exclusivity.