Taking Education Online: Making College More Accessible

As the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) forces Americans to shelter in place and keep a social distance from each other, an opportunity exists to more fully harness available technology.  Expanding distance learning’s use has this potential. Beyond addressing the immediate challenge of educating during COVID, it can help make college more affordable, by reducing tuition costs and tuition related debt.

Private initiatives have been expanding the availability of online courses.  Businessman and education reformer Steven Klinsky champions a national digital library of online college courses, available on a tuition-free basis.

Klinsky’s Modern States Education Alliance combines top-quality professors, free online textbooks and credit-granting certifying exams.[i] The Alliance’s “Freshman Year for Free” offers free online courses that can lead to credit. Working with an online joint venture of Harvard and MIT and other course developers, they are producing top quality, tuition-free online courses for every one of the traditional freshman college subjects.  Making more credit-granting online courses available makes college far more affordable to students at very little taxpayer cost.

As Klinsky has written: “Online college courses are nothing new. Millions of students have now taken college courses entirely online for the past twenty years, for full academic credit, and from all types of colleges and trade schools. The problem, however, is that — due to the regulatory and “pricing power” structure of accredited post-secondary education — the tuition cost for these online courses has been set every bit as high (or sometimes higher!) than for the same course delivered in the physical classroom.” [ii]

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The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) is a group of standardized tests created and administered by the College Board. These tests assess college-level knowledge in thirty-six subject areas and provide a mechanism for earning college credits by verifying competency.

Modern States pays for all CLEP test fees and proctoring expenses, which cost more than $100 per student. More than 30,000 CLEP exams have been paid for by Modern States, saving students about $45 million in total tuition. Each course and exam passed can save students and their families $1,000 to $2,000 on tuition, with no taxpayer dollars spent. Research shows that students who pass a CLEP exam are more likely to graduate from college overall, and more likely to do well in further courses.

Writing in the Baltimore Sun about his experience teaching with Modern States, a Johns Hopkins math instructor James Murphy commented:

“The Modern States online courses are not designed to replace the traditional American college experience but to complement it and increase its accessibility. By helping students move past remedial courses through online study and earn credit through the CLEP exam, my Modern States courses provide an on-ramp to college.”[iii]

The Modern States Education Alliance recently announced that March 2020 included record days of growth for the organization. To date, more than 210,000 people are registered for the rapidly-growing free college program. More than 2,900 U.S. colleges and universities now accept the credits.

Within the past few weeks, millions have been connecting with each other through technology. Classrooms and businesses have moved online, often for the first time.  An unexpected long- term benefit should be the expanded use of distance learning. The disintermediating power of network technologies can change how higher education is delivered.



[i] For more information see https://modernstates.org/

[ii] How to Really Make College Free, by Steve Klinsky, November 18, 2016 http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2016/11/18/how_to_really_make_college_free_132384.html

[iii] https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-0810-modern-states-20180809-story.html

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