President Obama is proposing to make community college tuition-free for qualified students nationwide. But what if anyone could take the first year of college free online?
A New York philanthropist announced a $1 million donation Wednesday that aims to make that possible through an online venture overseen by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
Steven B. Klinsky’s idea is for students to take foundational courses through the online venture edX that would prepare them for College Board examinations in various subjects. Those who pass enough Advanced Placement or College-Level Examination Program tests conceivably would be able to enter college as sophomores. That would cut the price of a bachelor’s degree by a quarter.
“No one should be shut out of education after high school because of tuition cost or lack of access,” Klinsky said. His goal: “to create at least one universally available and tuition-free path toward high quality education for anyone who seeks it.”
Klinsky’s vision — “freshman year for free” — echoes in spirit what Obama proposed last week. The president wants Congress to approve $60 billion over the next decade for a partnership with states that would eliminate community college tuition for “responsible students” who get adequate grades and make academic progress.
Obama’s proposal faces long odds in a Republican-led Congress, but it tapped a yearning in many quarters for an educational system in which everyone is guaranteed a chance at school beyond 12th grade at no charge. On Twitter, “#FreeCommunityCollege” quickly became a popular topic.
Numerous entrepreneurs offer online college courses at low cost or free. How students earn credit for those courses, especially transferrable credits, has become a key issue in recent years with the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.
The Web platforms edX and Coursera — the former, a nonprofit organization based in Cambridge, Mass.; the latter, a business based in Mountain View, Calif. — offer free access to MOOCs from major colleges and universities in a plethora of subjects. They also are experimenting with ways to certify, for a small fee, the accomplishments of students who take and pass the MOOCs.
Skeptics say MOOCs are more about promoting college brands than providing real education for the masses. Even fans of MOOCs say they are no substitute for face-to-face instruction.
But edX’s partners recently began offering MOOCs for high school students, including some geared toward AP tests. Rice University in October launched one for AP biology. Boston University this month launched one for AP physics. Nancy Moss, an edX spokeswoman, said some of the high school offerings have drawn 10,000 or more students. “The enrollment has been phenomenal,” she said.
For decades, many colleges have offered credit to students for high scores on AP tests. Credits are also available through the College-Level Examination Program, known as CLEP.
Klinsky aims to use those long-established programs to enhance the value of MOOCs. His gift would spur the development of about 20 online courses from prominent universities, all geared toward AP and CLEP. Combined with other edX courses underway, it would create a freshman-year catalog of more than 30 introductory courses from top colleges in an array of subjects as diverse as calculus and Western civilization. The catalog would be fully available on edX within a year and a half and be promoted through a nonprofit organization Klinsky began that is called the Modern States Education Alliance.
“Central to the edX mission is the idea that education should be a basic human right, and we are pleased to work with Modern States as they seek to fulfill their vision of accessible education for every student around the world,” Anant Agarwal, chief executive of edX, said in a statement.
The MOOCs would include quizzes, tests and online discussion groups, with texts and other materials provided free online. Modern States also wants to help students obtain tutoring, counseling and mentoring.
Klinsky, 58, a professional investor, said he is not interested in making money on the project. He said he took AP courses and tests as a high school student, earning credits that helped him in college. The emergence of MOOCs, he said, provides a chance to expand that pathway.
“I’m just trying to make the revolution that’s already going on more accessible to more people,” he said.