Online ed startup Coursera moves further along money-making path

Since launching earlier this year, Palo Alto-based Coursera has established itself as a force in online education, attracting more than two million students, 33 top-notch universities and $22 million in venture funding. But this week, the company made a key step toward building out its business model, announcing that it had opened up a recruiting service that matches employers with top-performing students on its site.

In a blog post Tuesday, the company said:

If you opt-in to our Career Services, we will try to find companies that match your interests, skills and knowledge.  If you do well in a Coursera class and allow us to share that information with potential employers (who will have agreed to keep this information in strict confidence, and use only for the purpose of considering you for employment), this could make you even more appealing to employers.

As with Coursera courses, the Career Services support is free for students, but employers pay Coursera for information on who might be good candidates.  So far, Facebook (s FB), Twitter, AppDirect and TrialPay are among the companies that have signed up. For now, the company is just starting with software engineering but plans to expand to other disciplines.

The announcement isn’t surprising as Coursera has previously indicated that matching students with employers is a possible revenue model, as well as charging students for certificates from partner universities.  The company did not disclose how much it is charging employers or how it is splitting the revenue with its university partners, but a contract between Coursera and the University of Michigan obtained this summer by the Chronicle of Higher Education indicated that partners could get 6 to 15 percent of the revenue.

According to the Chronicle, through Coursera’s Career Services program, participating employers are provided lists of students who meet their requirements, which typically includes the top-performing students in a given discipline in a geographic area. If one of the students piques the employer’s interest, Coursera reaches out to the student via e-mail asking if she wants an introduction to the company. In addition to requiring an opt-in from students, the program gives universities offering courses the choice to participate.

Co-founder Andrew Ng told the Chronicle that not all of the universities have joined the program but given the “uncontroversial” nature of the business model, he added that he expects more to join in the future.  He also said that while results of its Career Services program have been positive, they expect to make more revenue from selling certificates, something it plans to do in the coming months, the Chronicle reported.

Online learning site Udacity also makes money from a similar “headhunter”-style model and, earlier this fall founder Sebastian Thrun told me that, so far, 20 students had found employment through the site.

Even though the recruitment programs are still in their infancy, considering that the startups themselves just launched in the first quarter of the year, the progress shows the interest on both the university and employer sides. And even before it had an official program in place, Coursera said its courses helped students find new jobs, indicating the value of free online education, especially as university costs rise and jobseekers struggle to keep up in the changing economy.