Now the start-ups are discovering a way around that monopoly, by inventing credentials that “graduates” can take directly to employers instead of university degrees.
“If I were the universities, I might be a little nervous,” said Alana Harrington, director of Saylor.
org, a nonprofit organization based in the District. Established by entrepreneur Michael Saylor, it offers 200 free online college courses in 12 majors.
Another nonprofit initiative is Peer-to-Peer University, based in California. Known as P2PU, it offers free online courses and is supported by the Hewlett Foundation and Mozilla, the company behind the Firefox Web browser.
A third is University of the People, also based in California, which offers more than 40 online courses. It charges students a one-time $10 to $50 application fee. Among its backers is the Clinton Global Initiative.
The content these providers supply comes from top universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley, Tufts University and the University of Michigan. Those are among about 250 institutions worldwide that have put a collective 15,000 courses online in what has become known as the open-courseware movement.
The universities aim to widen access to course content for prospective students and others. At MIT, a pioneer of open courseware, half of incoming freshmen report that they’ve looked at MIT online courses and a third say it influenced their decision to go there.
But the material, which includes videos of lectures, can also be scooped up by others and organized into catalogues of free courses.
Some providers develop their own content. StraighterLine, a Baltimore for-profit company, charges students $99 a month plus a $39 registration fee for each of more than 30 online courses.
These start-ups have a tiny share of a fast-growing online market. An estimated 6.1 million students a year pay for online courses from traditional or for-profit universities.
By contrast, University of the People has registered 1,100 students in two years. StraighterLine says it enrolled 4,000 in the past two years. Saylor.org doesn’t have a count of how many students take its courses; P2PU says that about 25,000 users have opened accounts on its Web site since 2009 but that there is no tally of how many have finished courses.
Still, analysts say the notion of free or very low-cost online college is gaining attention from students who often must borrow heavily to pay spiraling tuition costs at traditional schools.
“Maybe these upstarts don’t have all the bells and whistles of the beautiful campuses. But people are deciding it’s not worth paying for that,” said Michael Horn, director for education at the Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank.