Why Udacity and EdX Want to Trademark the Degrees of the Future—and What’s at Stake for Students

No one owns the term “master’s degree.” But upstart education providers dream of getting a lock on the words for the next generation of online graduate certifications. Their strategy says a lot about how today’s online programs differ from those in the past (Hint: duration and price are just one part of that). Udacity won a trademark for Nanodegree last year. And in April, the nonprofit edX, founded by MIT and Harvard University to deliver online courses by a consortium of colleges, applied for a trademark on the word MicroMasters. And MicroDegree? Yep, that’s trademarked too, by yet another company. Sean Gallagher, chief strategy officer at Northeastern University’s Global Network, picked up on this trend recently and wondered what’s going on. He knows the space well, since he literally wrote the book on “ The Future of University Credentials.” And he noticed that at least one key player can’t seem to decide whether it wants its new degrees to be universal or proprietary. When MIT announced its first MicroMaster’s degree last year, for instance, officials there said they hoped other colleges would adopt the term for their online offerings. The idea was that the diminutive (yet techy-sounding) term would come to stand for a professional degree equal to about a quarter to half the material covered in a traditional master’s program. More recently, though, edX registered for a trademark, which would give it far more control over who could use the distinction. In fact, that could mean that only colleges in edX can adopt the term. This fall more than a dozen edX partner colleges announced new MicroMasters programs in a variety of fields. But what about the thousands of U.S. colleges that aren’t in that club, Gallagher wonders. Anant Agarwal, head of edX, said in an email statement that the group is committed to making sure that all of the company’s programs, including its MicroMasters, “remain a reliable indicator of source and quality and distinguish edX and its offerings in the marketplace and to learners everywhere.” In other words, the trademark is a way to control who gets to use the term. Officials were reluctant to say more because the trademark application is still under review. Udacity got into the trademark game earlier, registering the word Nanodegree for...

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