How to Dramatically Slash the Cost of College Education

05/12/2015 06:46 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016


The exorbitant cost of higher education is a recurrent topic of conversation, concern, and discontent these days. Against that backdrop, an announcement from edX and Arizona State University caught my attention last week. ASU and edX announced a program called Global Freshman Academy:

The Global Freshman Academy (GFA) will give learners anywhere in the world the opportunity to earn freshman-level university credit after successfully completing a series of digital immersion courses hosted on edX, designed and taught by leading scholars from ASU. By allowing students to learn, explore and complete courses before applying or paying for credit, the Global Freshman Academy reimagines the freshman year and reduces academic and monetary stress while opening a new path to a college degree for many students.

The program differs from other digital immersion undergraduate programs in the following ways:

  • Course Credit for Open Online Courses - By completing the full series of eight Global Freshman Academy courses, students earn full college credit for freshman year; students will also be able to opt for taking individual courses for credit if they prefer
  • Cost Effective - Freshman year credit earned through GFA is a fraction of the cost students typically pay
  • Learning Before Payment - Students may decide to take a course for credit at the beginning or after coursework has been completed - reducing financial risk while opening a pathway for exploration and preparation for qualified students who may not otherwise seek a degree.
  • Unlimited Reach - Because of the open course format, learning takes place while scaling completely - there are no limits to how many learners can take the courses online
  • Innovative Admissions Option - GFA's approach is different from the traditional admissions process of other credit-bearing courses, eliminating such barriers to entry as standardized tests and transcripts that are part of the traditional application process.
  • Track Record of Success - This partnership brings together a globally recognized online educational platform founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a university whose innovative online degree programs boast an 89 percent retention rate.

GFA is an attempt, as Prof. Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, explains, at 'unbundling higher education':

One key to this shift might be the concept of unbundling many of the components that make up the traditional approach to higher education: time, function and content.

First, what does it mean for higher education to unbundle time? While there are substantial benefits to students coming to campus to work closely together with faculty, we can reexamine why four years on campus is considered to be the magic number for a college degree program.

Second, what might it mean for universities to unbundle function? Traditional, four-year higher education institutions do far more than provide an education. Universities are responsible for admissions, research, facilities management, housing, health care, credentialing, food service, athletic facilities, career guidance and placement and much more. Which of these items should be at the core of a university and add value to that experience?

Finally, there is the potential of unbundled content. This practice actually began with the textbook centuries ago when instructors started using course content written by other scholars.

Well, what I find exciting about the GFA announcement are the numbers:

  • Courses from ASU are available on edX for free as MOOCs, so you can learn for free. If you desire credit, you can sign up as a verified student to signal that you are interested. The fee to sign up for verified certificates is $45. Then if you pass the course, you have the option to pay $600 and obtain credit for the course at ASU.
  • At $600 per course, the entire freshman year can be completed for, say, $4800. That, depending on where a student plans to get the college degree from, could save anywhere between $20k to $45k.
  • Of course, if you play the logic of unbundling out, and two years, not just one year of college can be done in this mode, then the cost savings could be $40k to $90k. We're talking 40-45 percent cost savings.
This is rather significant. While the GFA program is still in its infancy, I hope that more colleges and universities will start to experiment with similar programs. It offers a concrete path forward to dramatically slash the cost of college education.

On a related note, universities offering credit for paid courses offered by the MOOCs will also offer that industry a legitimate path for monetization that has thus far eluded companies like Coursera, Udacity, as well as edX itself. With millions of learners, if each of these organizations can start offering paid courses that universities are willing to offer credit for, the entire industry will find itself a legitimate survival path.

For online learning, credit, currently is the holy grail. Technology to hold proctored testing via webcams already exists. There is no reason why the vision put forward by the GFA announcement cannot be scaled.

One hopes, this is now just a matter of time!

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