Can the Freshman Year of College be Free Online?


A New York philanthropist has announced a donation totaling $1 million to help make President Obama’s proposal for tuition-free community college a reality through an online venture overseen by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

Steven B. Klinsky would like to see students have the opportunity to take foundational courses through edX, an online educational company.  Doing so would prepare students for College Board exams on a number of subjects.  If enough exams were passed, the student could enter college as sophomores, cutting the price of a bachelor’s degree by one-fourth.

“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.”

His goal of “freshman year for free” aligns with Obama’s recently unveiled plan to eliminate college tuition for the first two years for those students who maintain a particular grade point average and make academic progress.

While the proposal has a long way to go in the Republican-led Congress, it has initiated a want for an educational system that offers everyone a chance to succeed after the 12th grade without paying, with the hashtag #FreeCommunityCollege becoming widely used on Twitter.

A number of entrepreneurs currently offer college courses online for either a low cost or free, though a key issue has become earning credits for those courses that could then transfer to a traditional institution, writes Nick Anderson for The Washington Post.

EdX and Coursera, online platforms that offer free access to massive open online courses — MOOCs — from major universities on a number of subjects, are beginning to explore ways to offer certification to students who complete the courses for a small fee.

Critics of the method feel that MOOCs merely promote a college brand rather than offering a real education.  While supporters do not fully agree with this view, they do feel that traditional classrooms offer a better education than the MOOCs do.

However, edX has recently begun to offer courses for high school students, some that even result in taking an AP exam.  Some of these courses have drawn upwards of 10,000 students.  “The enrollment has been phenomenal,” said edX spokeswoman Nancy Moss.

Many colleges across the country have offered credit to students who do well on AP exams, as well as through the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP).

Klinsky would like to make use of those programs in an effort to boost MOOCs.  His donation would allow for the creation of 20 online courses, all resulting in AP exams or CLEP.  The end result would be a freshman year offering of 30 introductory college courses through top universities in a number of subjects.  He hopes to have the catalog available on edX in the next year and a half.

Klinsky has said he is not looking to make money on the effort.  “I’m just trying to make the revolution that’s already going on more accessible to more people,” he said.