The Internet Could Offer Free, Accredited College Courses For All
Written by Steve Klinsky
Millennials are streaming their entertainment and sharing their lives online in a way that no previous generation has had the capability to do. But for all the sophistication of the Internet age, the idea of getting top quality college courses online for free, and using them for credits in the traditional college system, is only now being tested.
With college increasingly embodying the gulf between the rich and poor, the creation of tuition free, credit-bearing college courses online could be the great equalizer. By launching these courses (along with free online texts and materials) and making them available to everyone who wants to expand their learning, educators have an opportunity to work with the government or major philanthropies to provide access to top quality college education for all.
A Moral Imperative
A college education is crucial in determining your future. The average college debt now stands at $35,000; the cost of a fully accredited college course can be $1,000 to $2,000 per course, and sometimes even more. Many families are now unable to support their children’s college education, driving poor – and even middle class – students away.
More grants and scholarships have barely improved matters. Only 46 percent of low-income students are proceeding to college from high school. More worryingly, just over one in ten degrees awarded in 2014 were given to those from low-income households.
Online college courses have become commonplace, with over five million students estimated to be taking online college courses now. However, when these courses provide traditional college credit, they generally cost just as much as the same course at a college campus. When they don’t lead to credit, the online courses may be available tuition-free as ‘MOOCs’ (Massive Open Online Courses), but they do not allow students to earn traditional college degrees.
If we want to meet the moral imperative of providing education for all, we must create tuition-free online courses that are high in quality and which offer traditional college credits.
A Simple and Low Cost Solution
Offering free online courses which are led by top professors with free online textbooks and which do lead to real college credits is the answer. For government or philanthropies, it would be an exceptionally affordable step towards widening access to college campuses.
My experience of founding Modern States – a non-profit that offers free online college courses and texts that lead to credit – proves that it can be done. ModernStates.org and its “Freshman Year For Free” initiative offer freshman college level courses in fields such as chemistry, biology, introductory psychology and U.S. history. We are on track to offer over 40 courses in total, with each course universally available tuition-free and accompanied by free texts and materials.
Online courses can be delivered to thousands or even millions of students, and the world’s top instructors can be retained to teach them. For example, the former dean of George Washington Law School teaches Modern States’ course in introductory business law.
Our courses are specifically designed to prepare self-motivated learners to pass the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests from the College Board (The College Board is the same group that creates the Advanced Placement tests and the SAT exam.) These CLEP exams are well established, and are already offered in many locations at many times. Most importantly, passing scores on these CLEP exams are already accepted by over 2,000 traditional colleges as – in essence – transfer credits toward regular, full-time degrees. A student can take a full year’s worth of freshman courses on Modern States at no cost, pass the CLEP exams and enter great four year universities like Purdue or Penn State with only three years of cost and courses to go.
The goal is not to replace traditional four-year residential college. Rather, we have created an economically viable “on ramp” to traditional college education for any hard-working student who needs one. Our alliance partners include traditional universities that already serve over two million students each year, including the giant State University of New York system, public universities in Ohio, Tennessee and Texas, as well as EdX (the online arm of Harvard and MIT).
The costs of launching a tuition free online course effort are minimal: about $50,000 to $100,000 per course created, which is then available for free to an unlimited audience. A full curriculum can be created for a few million dollars, compared to the tens of billions of dollars spent on traditional college aide and tuition. Creating a program of online courses is an exceptionally cost-effective way to extend college education to all.
The Modern States program proves the viability of tuition free online courses that lead to credit. Real students have now taken the Modern States courses and passed the CLEPs, qualifying for actual credits when they enroll in many major colleges, tuition free. Online courses tied to the traditional credit system have allowed them to unlock a brighter future.
Other innovators – such as Arizona State – are trying similar efforts to lower cost online, granting credits at ASU at a reduced tuition. Greater support by the government and philanthropies could lead to more and better online courses, tests and tutoring.
Offering free, top quality, credit-bearing college courses for everyone is absolutely possible, and entirely achievable at a modestly low cost. We can widen access to college education for everyone. All that we need is the will to do it.
Steve Klinsky is the founder of Modern States, a non-profit dedicated to making a high quality college education free of cost and accessible to any person who seeks one. He is also the founder and CEO of New Mountain Capital, and chairman of the advisory board for Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance.
*Average cost of a degree ($35,000 average debt at graduation): http://time.com/money/4168510/why-student-loan-crisis-is-worse-than-people-think/
*46% of low-income students proceeding to college from high school: http://higheredtoday.org/2015/11/25/where-have-all-the-low-income-students-gone/
*10% of degrees in 2014 being awarded to low-income students: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/04/the-growing-wealth-gap-in-who-earns-college-degrees/479688/
*Numbers enrolling on online courses is rising: https://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2016-02-09/study-enrollment-in-online-learning-up-except-at-for-profits
*It costs $1,000 to $2,000 to take an online course: https://www.quora.com/How-much-does-it-cost-to-take-online-courses-at-University-of-Phoenix