Free online college classes are becoming increasingly popular. Whether through schools such as University of the People — which offers free college degrees to individuals — or massive open online courses and other educational content providers, no-cost college courses are pervading Cyberspace. The problem, as seen by those who want a degree that will be accepted by other schools, or future employers, is that most such courses are largely unaccredited.
Yet, as with everything else these days, change is in the wind.
In February, for example, the American Council on Education, which advises 1,800 schools on matters of accreditation, recommended that five MOOCs be approved for college credit at its member institutions. The courses include: Pre-Calculus and Algebra, from University of California, Irvine; Calculus: Single Variable from the University of Pennsylvania; and two offerings from Duke University, Introduction to Genetics and Evolution and Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach. All five are available through Coursera.
Although this is a step in the right direction, recommendation from the American Council on Education is merely advisory — none of its member schools actually have to offer credit toward a degree for students who register and complete one of the MOOCs which received the Council’s endorsement. As noted before on this site, though, many colleges do offer credit by exam for successful completion of College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams, those offered by Excelsior College, or DANTE and AP tests. And that’s where another type of free to dirt-cheap online course comes into play: the online prep-course for credit by exam tests.
Educational providers such as the Saylor Foundation and Education Portal offer courses that students can use to study for such “challenge exams,” still one of the cheapest (and fastest) ways to earn college credits that count toward a degree. The exams test students’ abilities to grasp the concepts that they may otherwise learn in a traditional classroom setting. In 2012, 18,000 people took exams from Excelsior and 76,000 students earned credit from CLEP exams, out of a total of 98,000 who took the tests.
According to Inside Higher Education:
Many, if not most, American colleges and universities accept that the tests are academically rigorous, and have accepted some Excelsior and CLEP exam credits, most of which cost less than $100.
Education Portal, for example, offers 31 courses that are linked to credit-bearing challenge exams – 16 geared to CLEP, two to Excelsior and eight that match up with both types of exams. The for-profit startup, which is based in Silicon Valley, is also a Web publishing company with material aimed at advising students on career and college choices. Advertisements on that side of the business generate revenue, company officials said, which keeps the courses free.
For those of us who wish to remain frugal when it comes to college education for ourselves or our kids, cheap is good. And free is even better.