Still, most conventional colleges and universities refuse to accept transfer credits from these programs. Universities say that they can’t always judge the quality of courses offered by others and that reading online content alone, or even watching lectures, is not the same as attending class in person.
“Libraries are free, too,” says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “You can roam around, read books and study. But hardly anyone would say that spending time in the library is a good preparation to work in any economy, much less this one.”
Denial of credits means that students who want a degree from a conventional university often find that they must retake certain courses — and pay for them.
“The last thing universities have to protect themselves is this withholding of academic credit,” said Philipp Schmidt, co-founder and director of P2PU. He contended that conventional schools simply want to prevent competition. “It’s not about a deep concern for the interests of the students. It’s about a deep concern for the interests of the institutions.”
Debbie Arthur of Kingsport, Tenn., who has taken courses from StraighterLine, said many classes at conventional universities are no more personal than the ones online.
“The Pollyanna version of college is that you’re learning and discussing things with your professors,” Arthur said. “The reality is that you have 450 kids in an auditorium listening to a teaching assistant.”
Some free-content providers are devising new credentials in lieu of credits or degrees. Saylor.org, for instance, next month will introduce an “electronic portfolio,” more detailed than a college transcript, that students can show employers.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is running a $2 million competition to design digital “badges” that can be used instead of university degrees to prove a job candidate’s experience and knowledge to employers. P2PU and Saylor are experimenting with such badges for students to show they have completed courses.
This spring, MIT will begin offering certificates of completion to anyone who successfully finishes courses the university makes available free online. There will be a small fee for certificates in this project, known as MITx.
Meanwhile, some businesses that offer tuition reimbursement to employees are becoming interested in the free- and low-cost education providers.
CompuCom, a Dallas information technology company with 5,000 employees, has begun to work with StraighterLine. Burck Smith, chief executive of StraighterLine, said such partnerships mean “colleges that want these students later will have to accept StraighterLine credits.”
Ed Rankin, who oversees CompuCom’s tuition reimbursement, said “there’s no question” other companies will follow suit.
“If there is a way to lower the price of higher education, you can’t stand there for long and say, ‘I’ll resist this and prevent it from happening,’ ” said Shai Reshef, founder and president of University of the People. “Maybe it will be a harder road than it needs to be. But it will happen.”
This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.