New online education models expand college access and lower degree cost

Contact | Jackie Kerstetter:, EdNext Communications

New online education models expand college access and lower degree cost
But MOOC-style offerings must overcome completion challenges

January 10, 2019—Student debt is climbing, with two out of every three seniors who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2017 carrying an average of $28,650 in student loans. But the cost of not completing a college degree is also growing: In 2017, only 68 percent of individuals holding only a high-school diploma were employed, compared to 84 percent of those with at least a bachelor’s degree. In a new article for Education Next, Kelly Field examines three innovative programs working to make college credentials cheaper and more flexible—and the challenges they’re facing to truly democratize higher education.

Arizona State University’s Global Freshman Academy, StraighterLine, and Modern States’ Freshman Year for Free are all leveraging the “massive open online course” (MOOC) model to deliver free or low-cost online courses that count toward college degrees. However, while the programs have attracted hundreds of thousands of enrollees, few students persist long enough to make significant strides towards a college credential. Global Freshman Academy, for example, has enrolled 373,000 students to date, with only 8,090 completers; Modern States has enrolled 92,000 course takers, with only 5,000 taking the subsequent College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams to earn college credit. Why are so many students failing to complete these programs?

Among Field’s key insights:

Programs are low-cost, but ineligible for financial aid. Unlike traditional colleges, these online programs aren’t accredited, and therefore aren’t eligible to award federal student aid, meaning students must pay out-of-pocket. While the programs cost far less than a four-year public institution, even a few hundred dollars can put college out of reach for some students.

Virtual models offer few supports. Studies show that supports, such as counselors and advisors, bolster the likelihood of suc­cess for low-income and first-generation students. Adding more supports would likely improve completion rates, but it would also drive up program tuition, pricing out more students.

Students have less at stake. Students often have nothing to lose by abandoning a course or program. Global Freshman Academy does not charge students upfront for courses, while Freshman Year for Free never charges for courses (students earn credits by taking either the Advanced Placement or the CLEP exam, the fees for which Modern States will pay for the first 10,000 exams taken).

Target students may be less motivated than in other successful online programs. Online graduate programs, such as Georgia Institute of Technology’s online computer science program, struggle less with completion perhaps because of student maturity, study skills, and self-discipline.

Despite challenges, pundits recognize the potential of online college credentials to expand access to higher education—if they can hone their ability to find and recruit the right students. “The [higher ed] markets out there are huge, not only in the U.S., but around the world. You’re not going to be able to squeeze every high-school graduate through the same pathway that everyone traditionally followed,” says Jeffrey J. Selingo, an author and scholar specializing in higher ed.

To receive an embargoed copy of “Entrée to Freshmen Year: Online programs offer low-cost courses for college credit” or to speak with the author, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at The article will be available Tuesday, January 8 on and will appear in the Spring 2019 issue of Education Next, available in print on February 27, 2019.

About the Author: Kelly Field is a freelance journalist based in Boston who covers higher education.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College