Bridging the Opportunity Divide

25 Universities, 100 Free Classes and the One Bold Idea That’s Making College More Affordable for Millions of Americans

February 19, 2015
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25 Universities, 100 Free Classes and the One Bold Idea That’s Making College More Affordable for Millions of Americans
5.5 million students have taken an online course. Tim Shaffer/Microsoft via Getty Images
These schools are using the digital age to students' benefits.

Ditch your stuffy seminars and dusty libraries. A slew of big-name colleges are now accepting online courses for credit.

A consortium of 25 schools, including University of Memphis, University of North Carolina and University of Maryland, are allowing all or most transfer credits that students earn from a select number of online programs. The broad list of institutions — both public and private, two-year and four-year, for-profit and non-profit — will focus on roughly 100 intro courses in up to 30 subject areas that are offered either at a low cost or for free. It’s already received the stamp of approval from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with a $1.89 million grant.

This is welcome news to many, primarily the 31 million working adults who took a few college classes but never finished. Now, they’ll have a better shot at obtaining a degree, certificate or credential for the knowledge they’ve already accrued. The program also has major appeal to kids who followed a non-traditional path out of high school, first-generation and low-income students and pretty much any young person who doesn’t like the idea of graduating knee-deep in debt.

More and more students are taking some online courses: the most recent figure by the Department of Education says 5.5 million students took at least one virtual class. A degree earned online doesn’t always have the same heft as one from awarded on a physical campus, but sometimes it’s the only option.

The popular Kaplan University, for example, a school that’s been offering distance courses since 1999 and is a part of this program, draws non-traditional students. Two-thirds are over the age of 30, and nearly 8,800 active military, veterans and spouses are enrolled. On the flip side, at Kaplan (a for-profit), there’s been allegations that teachers felt pressure to pass underperforming students, and the school paid a $1.3 million settlement last month for hiring incompetent teachers without minimum qualifications. That’s not to say online education is inherently flawed, but there’s still a number of problems that must be addressed.

The American Council on Education (ACE), essentially a trade organization for colleges and universities, is working to resolve this. One of the most important aspects of the alternative credit program will be setting standards for online courses and helping the 25 schools verify sources and select criteria for evaluating quality. It’s also hoping this move leads the wider higher education community to have “greater acceptance of alternative forms of credit, in a way that ensures quality and encourages more people to complete their postsecondary education,” says Deborah Seymour, ACE’s assistant vice president for education attainment and innovation. If all goes well this year, ACE plans to recruit additional schools by the start of the fall term.

“The institutions serving in this pilot project will play a valuable role in helping enhance the work we have been doing for many years in developing quality mechanisms for determining the credit worthiness of education, training and life experiences outside of a formal higher education classroom setting,” says ACE’s President Molly Corbett Broad. Referring to the Gates Foundation, she adds, “We very much appreciate this generous investment and the commitment it represents to the effort to provide a more flexible and cost-efficient way to increase the number of Americans able to gain a college degree or credential.”

Wondering if your school is accepting online credits? Here’s the complete list:

  • American Public University, Charles Town, W.Va.
  • Capella University, Minneapolis
  • Central Michigan University, Pleasant, Mich.
  • Charter Oak State College, New Britain, Conn.
  • Colorado Community College System
  • Colorado Technical University, Colorado Springs, Colo.
  • East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C.
  • Fayetteville State University, Fayetteville, N.C.
  • Fort Hays State University, Hays, Kan.
  • Goodwin College, East Hartford, Conn.
  • John F. Kennedy University, Pleasant Hill, Calif.
  • Kaplan University
  • Lakeland College, Plymouth, Wis.
  • Metropolitan State University of Denver
  • National Louis University, Chicago
  • Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Ariz.
  • Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, La.
  • Notre Dame College, South Euclid, Ohio
  • SUNY Empire State College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
  • Texas Woman’s University, Denton, Texas
  • Thomas Edison State College, Trenton, N.J.
  • University of Baltimore
  • University of Maryland University College, Adelphi, Md.
  • University of Memphis
  • University of North Carolina

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