Free Online Degrees? A Glimpse into the Future of Higher Education

I keep having the same daily nagging question.  “How can I help create free non-government funded, regionally accredited online degrees?”  Sometimes the question is just, “What will it take for me to offer a free online degree?” I started working with and studying online learning in the mid-1990s, and from the beginning I have been an advocate.  Online and blended learning do things that are impossible or improbable in most face-to-face experiences. One of those things is to give increased access and opportunity while also helping to nurture connected learning communities that transcend time and space.  All of my degrees (bachelor’s, two master’s and a doctorate) are from traditional face-to-face programs at regionally accredited Universities, but there is no question that my greatest learning over the past decade came from online learning communities and the face-to-face conversations and experiences provoked by those online connections.  I want to help make that an embedded part of formal and informal learning around the world.

One option is to advocate for publicly funded free post-secondary education, like what exists in over thirty countries around the world, but I am less interested in government-funded efforts that rely on taxes and government grants. Instead, I am in search of sustainable financial models that will remove finances as a barrier to anyone earning a college undergraduate or graduate degree. I have a dozen possibilities scribbled in my idea journal, and perhaps I will find opportunity to try one or more of them. Of course, most of what I’m doing now is on the conceptual level. I have little to show for my thoughts apart from offering some open online courses that could easily be tweaked to meet the level of academic quality expected in any number of Universities around the world.  In fact, the work produced by participants in my most recent project, Learning Beyond Letter Grades, equals the work that I get from students in my traditional graduate program in Educational Design & Technology. The only difference is that the open course is free, I don’t get paid to teach it, and the participants do not leave with any formal credits from a regionally accredited University.

I am not alone in this thought, and I enjoy following several experiments in free or highly inexpensive online college degrees. In 2009, Shai Reshef founded University of the People, a tuition-free online University that (as of November 2013) offers two undergraduate degrees. The vision was to increase access and opportunity to higher education, with special attention to people in developing countries. From their web site, “Our aim, as it has always been, is to see to it that no student will be denied the right to access higher education due to financial constraints.”

There are a couple of caveats, namely that it is not entirely free and that programs are not accredited. They charge a small application fee ($10-50) and an examination fee at the end of a course ($100).  Nonetheless, this is a minimal cost to the learner.  They’ve yet to get regional or national accreditation in the United States. What does that matter?  From the perspective of what you can do with a non-accredited degree, there are two practical limitations: 1) Credits and degrees may not be accepted or recognized for transfer and as part of an application for admission to a higher degree at another University. 2) Some jobs in the field of education require a degree from an accredited University. Other than that, one can learn the same things, demonstrate the same mastery, and earn jobs requiring a given degree…all of this with close to no out-of-pocket cost.

New Charter University, a self-placed online school is not free, but it is nationally accredited (not that this is different from the gold-standard of regional accreditation) and inexpensive.  They charge by the month or the semester.  At $796 per term, that means earning a full bachelor’s degree for $6000-7000.  Graduate degrees completed in under two years could be earned for well under $6000.  National accreditation is not held is as high of regard as regional accreditation, but it does make students eligible for government loans and grants. The downside is that some regionally accredited institutions do not accept credit from nationally accredited schools. I should note that Patten University provides a similar offering (with a few different programs) and both are part of the UniversityNow. Of course, community colleges in the United States sometimes offer an education at a comparable price to this as well.

A little more in line with what I have thought about is World Education University, offering a free online associate’s degree.  How do they fund the operation?  Here is their answer, “In order for the University to provide free education without any government financial support, assistance or restrictions, we rely on income generated from a variety of sponsorships, advertising and other revenue channels to support our operations.” This one is not accredited, but they state that they are pursuing it. In addition to seeking more traditional forms of accreditation, the end of this article notes that they are also exploring a competency-based model that is certified directly by reputable businesses.

Other projects are in the works, not to mention the developing experimentation related to offering MOOCs where participants can earn college credit. As I understand it, the MOOC-for-credit movement has limited traction so far, but with initiatives like the American Council for Education’s evaluating specific MOOCs as suitable for credit, perhaps we will see changes in the near future. Whatever the case, these are mainly discussions about single courses for transfer to tuition-based programs and not offering full free online programs.

There are additional innovations that will likely impact this exploration of “free degrees,” some of which will support the idea and others that might make the concept obsolete.  From an open education perspective, degrees may not be that important.  What if people learn what they need and want for free?  If they need to give evidence of that learning, it is possible to do it without credits, programs and degrees.  Create a profile at and start building a portfolio of your work from various sources.  Earn digital badges that are backed by reputable sources and provide evidence of one’s mastery. There is a growing conversation about how badges will eventually begin to supplement or even replace degrees as evidence for certain employment options. In fact, a driver behind digital badges is to free or extend learning from formal learning organizations and traditional authorizing entities.  Along with this, we see experiments with communities that provide an un-bundled approach to higher education and lifelong learning (see my past article about the Black Mountain SOLE).

In my future vision of education, learning would be largely unleashed from the current tuition-based model, and degrees would be only one of many ways to give evidence of learning. That vision is already a reality, as there are more free and open opportunities for learning today than at any time in history.  At the same time, people continue to be willing to pay large sums for the experience and/or credential associated with a tuition-based degree.  We will see if or how that changes in the upcoming years.  Regardless, my question persists.  What would it take to offer the first regionally accredited online degree?

Posted in blog, education, education reform, Open Learning

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.