Technology

New Venture Will Offer Free Courses That Students Can Take for College Credit

August 09, 2017

Students looking to claim college credit without paying anything for the classes now have another option, courtesy of a project called Freshman Year for Free.

The venture, being formally unveiled on Wednesday, includes a catalog of online courses in more than 40 subjects that were developed by academics affiliated with major universities across the country. Leaders of the Modern States Education Alliance, the New York City philanthropy behind the project, call it an "on ramp" to college.

The courses are free to anyone who wants to use them, but were designed especially for students who can use this alternative approach to earn traditional academic credits through the Advanced Placement or College Level Examination Program exams, administered by the College Board.

"If you have a mobile phone, you can get a full year of credit," said Steven B. Klinsky, founder and chief executive of Modern States.

“If you have a mobile phone, you can get a full year of credit.”
Mr. Klinsky is also the chief financier of Modern States, having provided what he described as "single-digit millions" in initial donations to cover the costs of paying the professors their one-time fee and producing the courses.

Hoping he’ll be joined by other donors, Mr. Klinsky has also pledged to cover the exam fees for the first 10,000 students (CLEP tests cost $85 each, AP tests $93).

The venture is "a private-sector approach to solving a social problem," said Mr. Klinsky, who is also the founder and chief executive of New Mountain Capital, a private-equity firm that once held a major stake in Strayer Education, a for-profit-college company. Modern States recruited the professors and created the courses in collaboration with edX, the nonprofit MOOC venture, and with a production studio in New Jersey.

Freshman Year for Free isn’t the only venture offering free or "free-ish" college options. Efforts like the University of the People, the Global Freshman Academy at Arizona State University, and offerings at Saylor.org were all created in a similar vein.

But Mr. Klinsky and David A. Vise, a former Washington Post reporter who is executive director of Modern States, said they expected the courses would be a useful alternative to online courses that cost much more. Students’ only costs associated with Modern States courses are the fees for the credit tests.

‘Really Positive Effects’

The venture could also contribute to improved rates of college completion, especially for nontraditional students.

Angela Boatman, an assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University, has analyzed the academic records of hundreds of thousands of CLEP-test takers. While she was not familiar with the design or content of the Modern States courses, Ms. Boatman said the idea of having good preparatory materials for the CLEP tests would be a benefit, because passing even a single CLEP test "shows really positive effects" on degree completion.

She and her research colleagues have found that students at community colleges who passed at least one CLEP test were 17 percent more likely to complete their associate degree than were those who hadn’t taken the test. (For students at four-year colleges, the probability of earning a degree increased by 2.6 percent.)

Students typically earn three to five credits per course through CLEP, she said, and the program is especially popular with students who are on active military duty or who are veterans. The average age of a CLEP-test taker is 26.

Mr. Vise, of Modern States, said some high-school teachers are using the courses to supplement their AP curricula.

Both Mr. Klinsky and Mr. Vise acknowledged that the courses might not be for everyone, especially given research showing that students from disadvantaged educational backgrounds often need mentoring and support to complete an online course. "We’re saying, it’s an opportunity," said Mr. Klinsky.

Freshman Year for Free wasn’t initially part of the Modern States plan. Back in 2012 Mr. Klinsky set out to create a new kind of organization that would grant accreditation to alternative education providers. But he ran into obstacles, he said, and realized, "I didn’t have the power to change the accrediting system." So rather than try to invent a new accrediting body, he decided to create courses that could be validated through a credit system that had been around for decades.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.