Stephen Conway works independently at Mass Bay Community College in a computer science course designed in conjunction with online learning from MIT. Such online courses are beginning to level the playing field for students vying for spots at elite universities. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Associated Press)

Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America. This essay was adapted from “The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.”

This week, admissions officers at America’s most prestigious colleges are scrambling to put the final touches on letters admitting the Class of 2019. Just as students from around the world are vying for a limited number of spots in America’s best colleges, higher-learning institutions are competing to attract the best and the brightest.

While laptops and tablets have largely replaced paper-stuffed file folders in admissions office conference rooms, the process is still based on the same underlying information used generations ago: high school grade-point averages, SAT and ACT scores, extracurriculars, letters of recommendation and personal essays. But technology is poised to shake up the admissions game in a way that will level the playing field for students in America and abroad.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, offered by dozens of elite colleges give students a chance to prove that they’re ready for a university — and in turn, the institution gets an accurate measure of whether a student is prepared for its academics, helping refine what is quite an imprecise science. But this new way to assess applicants isn’t great for everyone. It could become harder for U.S. students with certain social and economic advantages — children of alumni, and those who can afford the top high schools, SAT prep classes and tutors — to get into elite colleges.

Right now, there’s not much real knowledge of prospective students’ aptitude for advanced academic work. Instead, colleges are stuck with imperfect proxies: Grade-point averages are tricky to compare because grading standards vary widely among teachers and high schools. Personal essays could have been written by someone else. SAT scores are highly correlated with parental income, and students can learn strategies for maximizing their scores that have little to do with aptitude or achievement. Test scores aren’t in­cred­ibly indicative of collegiate success, anyway. For example, economist Jesse Rothstein found that, after controlling for students’ background characteristics, SAT scores predict only 2.7 percent of the variation in students’ college grades.

Students are also in the dark. Traditionally, college has been what economists call an “experience good” — something you can’t really understand until after the moment of purchase. This can result in bad matches: It’s just one reason that more than one in four students who start college full-time drop out or transfer within three years.

Imperfect information also allows corruption to flourish. Since it’s hard for a college to truly know which students will make the greatest contributions to the academic community, who’s to say it’s not the children of wealthy donors or influential politicians? Just last month, an investigation found that University of Texas President Bill Powers used “holistic” admissions criteria to admit the underqualified sons and daughters of various bigwigs in the Lone Star State. Meanwhile, well-off families pay thousands of dollars for SAT prep courses, essay-writing coaches and slots in high schools with a pipeline to the Ivy League.

This kind of behavior has become so common that many people have come to accept it as just another way the 1 percent get a leg up. But over the past three years, the very same elite institutions populated with these advantaged students have launched an online education movement that could someday leave the old admissions system in the dust. They’ve done something simple but profound: For the first time, high school students can take real courses from the world’s greatest universities and demonstrate exactly how smart they are.

Through a nonprofit consortium called edX, Harvard, MIT, the University of Texas, the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, Caltech, the Sorbonne and dozens of other elite universities have begun offering complete online versions of their highly sought-after classes, free, to anyone with an Internet connection. Among other topics, you can learn about computer science, matrix algebra, poetry and Chinese history from Harvard; engineering, mathematics and jazz appreciation from UT; principles of economics and data analysis from Caltech. Other online education platforms such as Coursera offer thousands of additional courses from elite universities, free.

These are not watered-down classes. I took a genetics course through MITx, the university’s branch of edX. It was the same class taught to freshmen in Cambridge, Mass. — the same lectures, homework assignments, midterms and final exam. MOOC success is much more likely to predict success in college classes than SAT scores, because MOOC success is, in fact, success in college classes.

Online college courses also can be a better measure of student aptitude than Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, which are considered in admissions by many colleges. AP and IB standards aren’t as high as those in elite colleges’ courses. MIT, for example, doesn’t award credit for the AP biology, chemistry or computer science exams — they’re simply not hard enough and don’t cover the same material as MIT’s classes in those subjects.

The availability of real, free college courses means universities won’t have to rely on such flawed proxies in the future. Instead they’ll be able to pick and choose from among students who have already demonstrated that they can excel at demanding college work. Colleges are still figuring out exactly how to incorporate MOOCs into admissions, since the courses have existed for only a few years. Right now, students would list them among extracurricular activities, which in a sense they are.

MIT, long a leader in education technology, has been one of the first universities to take steps in this direction. In 2012, a young man named Battushig Myanganbayar was one of only 340 students out of 150,000 worldwide to earn a perfect score in a rigorous online Circuits and Electronics course. At the time, he was 15 and living in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.

All Battushig needed was an Internet connection and a teacher with an eye for engineering potential. After excelling in the MIT class, he took the SAT, and he’s now enrolled at MIT. Another Circuits and Electronics student, Amol Bhave from Jabalpur, India, enjoyed the class so much he created his own online follow-up course in signals and systems. He, too, was admitted into the 2013 MIT freshman class.

Just a few years ago, none of this could have happened. As late as 2008, only about one in 10 Mongolian citizens used the Internet. But now broadband access and cheap computing are spreading rapidly throughout the world, bringing millions of Amols and Battushigs into contact with elite American institutions.

“Given that we know how rigorous MITx classes are, seeing a student’s performance in that class can help calibrate us to their readiness for an MIT education,” says Stuart Schmill, the university’s dean of admissions. “This can be true for international students but also students in the U.S. who don’t otherwise have access to more challenging coursework.”

Science and engineering universities aren’t the only ones thinking this way. Davidson College, a small, highly selective liberal arts school in North Carolina, also offers courses through edX. “One of the reasons Davidson partnered with edX was to enhance our reach in identifying more students that could thrive in a Davidson setting,” says university President Carol Quillen, a humanities scholar. The university hasn’t enrolled any standout students from its online classes just yet.

As more colleges see edX and other online education platforms as valuable recruiting tools, they will have strong incentives to make more of their courses available for free. Meanwhile, Internet access will continue to expand. As a result, the number of potential candidates for the best schools will increase exponentially — and the decades-long primacy of the SAT in college admissions will be challenged. It will become much harder for privileged parents to help their less-talented children game the system.

Unless, of course, elite schools really wanted the children of the rich and powerful all along.

Twitter: @kevincarey1

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