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MOOCs, Online Learning and the Broken Promise of a Free College Degree


Take MOOCs for Free College Degree | Free Your Mind Sign TheDarkThing/Flickr 


Last week Jonathan Haber, an ed blogger, decided to spend the rest of this year taking MOOCs that correspond to the college courses required to earn a traditional bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Go, Jonathan. Three cheers for low-cost online learning. College equivalency credit for autodidactic learning is not new. In fact, a handful of accredited online colleges are founded on this very idea. The shocking thing is how many people in the media think credit for self-learning is a radical new (and scary) idea. Back in the 1980s, I toted around a hefty four-volume set of course equivalencies published by the American Council on Education (ACE). The volumes matched corporate training and military courses with college course equivalencies. Evaluating workplace training for college credit has been an encyclopedic endeavor with ACE for 50 years. ACE publishes recs on 35,000 such courses for college credit.  


Fact: Corporations educate more adults in this country each year than all the universities combined. (Even McDonald’s Corporation operates its own Hamburger U., an esteemed institution that teaches restaurant management to the masses.) The American Society for Training & Development’s annual report on workplace learning estimates that U.S. companies spent $1,182 per learner on employee learning in 2011. Total learning expenditure was distributed as follows:

  • 14 percent ($21.9 billion) for college tuition
  • 56 percent ($87.5 billion) for internal training
  • 30 percent ($46.9 billion) for external training services/vendors

Colleges are not—and never have been—the leading educators of adult learners. If these numbers shock you, it’s because universities have successfully lock-marketed themselves since the 1960s as “the place” all credible learning occurs.


Truth: Colleges are not even an itty-bitty twinkle in the vast constellation of adult education. Americans learn more on-the-job and in their everyday lives than they learn inside formal lecture halls, whether those lecture halls are on campus or online. Why, then, so much attention to university MOOCs (massive open online courses)? MOOCs sizzle. They’ve got social media sex appeal. Venture capitalists are shuffling cash into the MOOC machine. Money men love the flash of intellectual brands like MIT and Harvard. Media peeps, most of them educational elitists, mistakenly position MOOCs as a radical “free college” movement.  


True, MOOCs are open and free—unless you want to attach any type of assessment, credentialing or professional certification to them. Certification, assessment and authentication of college level learning is not free. In fact, the fees attached to using MOOCs for college credit effectively cripple any threat that these online courses will help lower the cost of a college degree for consumers.  


Excelsior College, founded in the 1970s to help non-traditional adult learners document and earn college credit for career credentials, encourages students to use free online MOOCs (as well as old-fashioned library books, texts and videos) to prep for taking their own branded college equivalency tests. But these equivalency exams are not free. Excelsior exams carry a fee of $95. Some exams also require students to pay an external vendor to proctor the exam; and students may encounter other fees to matriculate at Excelsior and have test scores (if they are high enough) seared onto an Excelsior degree transcript.  


Coursera and the MOOC Fee Machine


 Recently, ACE recommended five Coursera MOOCs for degree credit. Duke University offers two approved science courses: “Introduction to Genetics” and “Bioelectricity.” ACE also approved three math MOOCs: “Pre-Calculus” and “Algebra” from the University of California at Irvine and “Single-Variable Calculus” from the University of Pennsylvania.  


ACE operates a credit-recommendation service that evaluates training and non-collegiate courses. ACE publishes recommendations that its 1,800 member colleges can follow to quickly determine the amount and type of college credit they might award for any approved course. Note that no college has to honor ACE recommendations, and those that do severely limit the number and types of ACE credits they will accept toward a degree. All colleges charge fees to put ACE credits onto their official college transcripts.


Take a Duke MOOC, but don’t expect Duke to award Duke university credit for it.Students don’t get college credit for MOOCs. What they get is a chance to hurdle their way through a chain of reviews and fees for a chance at degree credit at some unnamed college in the future.  


Even if a college decides to honor ACE’s recommendations and award credit for MOOCs, the student may have to pay up to three different fees to get these equivalency credits put on a college transcript: 1) $30-$100 in fees paid to Coursera or other platforms for a “certification track” of course completion; 2) possible proctoring fees to outside vendors like Pearson for proctoring an exam at a remote location; and 3) fees to the college willing to transcript the course equivalency for degree credit.  


For consumers who are chasing degree credit, it’s often cheaper—and faster—to take a formal course from an affordable college. It’s also safer because all colleges limit the number and type of ACE credits they will accept toward their own degrees.   (For more on life experience credits and the online degree fee machine, see “5 Ways to Earn Life Experience Credit.”)  


MOOCS and the Free College Degree Come-On


Cornell is offering a “free” MOOC on marketing hospitality enterprises through social media, but the free course is only an intellectual amuse-bouche. Cornell’s free MOOC is designed to pre-sell students on a $1,200 professional certificate in the hospitality management area. Cornell has long offered professional continuing education in this same area.   So much for online learning and the promise of a free college degree.  


Online learning is on a free frenzy. Tuition is out. Fees are in. (Check out the University of the People for a global movement toward free online degree education. The school is unaccredited and charges fees rather than tuition. Tuition-free is a big online education buzzword that often sidesteps the escalating issue of fees.)   Three cheers for Jonathan and all self-educated individuals. It saddens me that if he succeeds, he’ll have the equivalent of another BA degree, but won’t actually have that second degree.  


And that makes all the difference in a world where employers demand a real paper pedigree before they’ll invite you in for a job interview.  

What is higher education going to do about that?    



About the Author: Vicky Phillips was cited in 2009 by US News & World Report as “for 20 years the leading consumer advocate for online college students.” In 1989 she designed America’s first online counseling center for distance learners on AOL. In 1998 she authored the first print guide to online graduate degrees – Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools put out by the Princeton Review. In 2001 she authored Never Too Late to Learn the Adult Student’s Guide to College.