Technology

The Catch in Arizona State’s Low-Cost Freshman Year Online: No Aid

Micha Theiner/eyevine/Redux

Anant Agarwal, the head of edX, which teamed up with Arizona State U. in the new 
project: “Our mission is to provide education to people who need it the most.”
April 23, 2015

When leaders of Arizona State University announced their unusual effort to let students complete their entire freshman year online at a sharply discounted rate, they took pains to distance the project from previous MOOCs, or massive open online courses.

Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State, stressed in an interview on Thursday that the university had until now avoided the MOOC trend. The project, he said, is something new, at one point calling its courses "curricular MOOCs" and at another using the term "super MOOC."

Indeed, the challenge facing the new effort will be to do something that MOOCs have so far failed to achieve — creating a lower-cost pathway to help more people complete college. And many observers see plenty of obstacles for Arizona State, chief among them that students using the approach will not be eligible for federal financial aid.

The project is a partnership with edX, a MOOC provider started by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. Arizona State and edX plan to work together to build a series of online courses that will be free for anyone to take but that will allow students who pass them to earn ASU credit for around $600 per course. Students who finish eight of the online courses could effectively place out of their first year at the university for about $6,000.

Leaders of the project, called the Global Freshman Academy, stress that cost savings are only part of their goal. The aim is to allow students who might be reluctant to attend college to essentially try before they buy, taking a free course and proving to themselves that they can handle it.

"One of the things we find often in smart and gifted kids from [low-income] families is some have issues with confidence," said Mr. Crow. "They have all the smarts, but they don’t have the experience in their families" of going to college. The super-MOOC approach will let such students "get the experience on their own and be able to say, ‘I got a B-plus, I think I can do pretty well in college," he said.

Not ‘Hitting Our Target’

Previous efforts to offer college credits for MOOCs, however, have failed to attract students. Since 2013 the American Council on Education has included several MOOCs in its College Credit Recommendation Service, which suggests that other colleges grant credit for them. At least one edX-offered MOOC, "Circuits and Electronics," is among those with that seal of approval.

But Deborah M. Seymour, the council’s assistant vice president for education attainment and innovation, said that "not more than 50" students had requested that a transcript from that MOOC be sent to a college. And the group has no data on how many of those colleges have accepted the credit. "This has not turned into a scalable venture for us at this point," said Ms. Seymour.

The vast majority of students taking free online courses already hold college degrees. And that is something that edX is focused on changing, and one of the reasons it entered the partnership with Arizona State, said Anant Agarwal, head of edX. "From a mission standpoint we’re not completely hitting our target," he said. "Our mission is to provide education to people who need it the most."

But the real question is perhaps more fundamental: Can the online format work for underserved students?

"What we know about online education is that it works much better for adults than for traditional-age students, and we know that first-generation [and low-income] students need a lot of support," said Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, an innovator in online education who is on leave to serve as an adviser to the U.S. Department of Education. And often that support involves not making content clearer, but in areas of culture or motivation.

"The question I would have for this program," he said, "is will it provide the levels of support those students need?" He added, however, that Arizona State had "demonstrated some real success in serving this kind of student."

The university has started a string of innovative projects in recent months. Last summer it brewed up a deal to charge Starbucks employees steeply discounted tuition to ASU Online, its older online program. In that arrangement, Arizona State offers a tuition discount to Starbucks employees, and the company pays some of the rest of the tuition tab.

While edX has focused on building better technology for MOOCs, Arizona State has concentrated on college completion, said Mr. Crow. This project tries to bring those two goals together.

Cost as Major Factor

While the new online program is cheaper than Arizona State’s traditional undergraduate college, it is still more expensive than some community colleges, noted Rachel Fishman, a senior policy analyst at New America.

Officials at the university acknowledge that students in the program will not qualify for financial aid because of a quirk of federal aid rules. Essentially the rules do not allow students to receive aid for prior knowledge, and in the new program, students will not become officially enrolled until after they’ve completed a MOOC.

"Financial aid was a complication that we weren’t fully able to resolve as of the launch," said Philip R. Regier, Arizona State’s dean for educational initiatives. He said the university hoped to find some way to make aid possible in the future, however. "Our objective here is to increase and broaden access," he said.

How did the university and edX arrive at the price tag? Actually, the final price per credit hour has not yet been set. The university has said only that it would not exceed $200 per credit and that the courses are three to four credits each. Students will also have to pay $45 for each course to get a verified certificate, a process by which they prove their identity to avoid academic fraud.

"The cost per credit hour will vary by the course, and it could be as low as $80 to $100," said Mr. Regier. "It’s going to depend on the variable cost to deliver the course to the student, and there are uncertainties that we’re facing and that edX is facing."

In other words, they don’t know how many students will show up. And edX’s Mr. Agarwal noted that they had to find a way to recover their production costs to make the project sustainable.

"MOOCs have left the impression that somehow education can be offered for free," he said. "Universities have been subsidizing the creation and running of these courses to a worldwide audience." The median cost to produce an edX MOOC is $100,000, he added, and that doesn’t count the time spent by a professor to create and manage the course.

Mr. Crow stressed that these new MOOCs would be more technologically advanced than earlier free online courses, incorporating adaptive-learning techniques and rich interactive materials.

"Think of the MOOCs that were initially launched as MOOC .1," he said. "This is MOOC 3.0. Not just .3 but 3.0."

Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads a team exploring new story formats. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page, jeffyoung.net; or try him by email at jeff.young@chronicle.com.