Arizona State University to Offer MOOCs for Credit. What Will it Mean for Students?

Blog Post
April 22, 2015

Arizona State University is no stranger to forging headline-grabbing partnerships. A year ago, the university garnered lots of media attention after announcing an agreement with Starbucks to provide scholarships and tuition reimbursement for employees at the coffee shop chain to enroll in ASU Online.

Now, ASU is at it again with its announcement of a partnership with edX, a nonprofit MOOC platform, to create the Global Freshman Academy. [Disclosure: the formal announcement is taking place at New America’s conference but the Education Policy Program had no role in the program’s development or roll out.] It’s a “learn now, pay later” structure in which students will be able to take eight interdisciplinary MOOCs taught by professors from ASU that comprise the first year of a degree. What’s noteworthy is that the courses are free to take upfront, other than $45 per course for an identity-verified certificate. Those who finish a class and want it to count toward a college degree can pay ASU up to $200 per credit (that’s about $600 to $800 per typical college course). The first classes will be available this fall and remaining courses will be released over the next two years.

At first blush, this partnership feels like another piece of ASU’s goal of providing more open and accessible degree pathways. And it appears to be a real test of the ability to turn free MOOCs into credit that has been the goal of many since these open courses first appeared a few years ago.

Whether it will succeed at meeting these goals is less clear. It may stop short of being truly accessible to the disadvantaged students who would most benefit.

Consider the price. $200 sounds affordable. But remember that most courses are three to four credits. Multiply that by eight courses and you’re looking at a price tag of $6,000 to $6,400. That’s lower than the average tuition and fees for public four-year in-state students ($9,139), but nearly double the in-district rate for a local community college ($3,347).

That $6,000+ price tag may seem even more daunting if students cannot pay for the courses with federal financial aid. Existing rules and regulations clearly state that federal financial aid cannot be used to pay for evaluating prior student work. Finding several thousand dollars without leaning on federal financial aid will be very difficult for low-income students.

The dual concern over credit cost and financing makes the Global Freshman Academy proposition harder to sort out. On the one hand, a huge bonus of the program is that students won’t have to pay for the credits until they complete coursework, lessening the cost of trying out college. But paying on the back end will be far more expensive than what most students nationwide could access at a community college both online and off, and those credits can be covered by federal financial aid.

To illustrate how relatively unaffordable the Global Freshman Academy may be for students, look at the Maricopa Community College District. Maricopa serves students in the Phoenix metro area, just like ASU, but only costs $84 per credit hour for in-district students. For less than half the Global Freshman Academy’s per-credit fee, Maricopa students are able to mix and match face-to-face courses with online courses, access student support services, and receive federal financial aid. Plus the courses are transferrable to ASU. Maricopa’s fees are not abnormally low. The in-district rate for community colleges nationally works out to about $111 per credit. ((Based off of the national average of $3,347 tuition and fees at community colleges, divided by 30 credit hours.))

And what exactly would the up to $200 per credit fee pay for? MOOCs are already open and free to enroll for anyone who has access to high-speed Internet. Some of that $200 will surely help defray ASU’s costs for offering the course. But does it really cost that much to translate MOOCs taught by ASU professors into ASU credits? How will pricing vary? It would be better to charge a much lower flat rate, something that at least makes them competitively priced with the community college sector. This would make it a more open access option for students.

The other half of making something worth the price is ensuring that it has value as an open and accessible means to a degree for students. To do this, students in the Global Freshman Academy must be able to take their credits and transfer them to another college or university that is willing to trust those credits. Here several other questions arise. Even though students will be receiving ASU credit, how easy will it be to receive a transcript from ASU in order to transfer those credits to an institution of the student’s choosing? In terms of quality assurance, how will student work be assessed, and how will ASU prevent widespread fraud?

Lastly, students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend not to fare as well in online courses that are built for self-directed learners. Given that MOOCs already have low completion rates, what will ASU do to promote student success? Just having relatively low-cost access to credits does not mean students will automatically be successful in achieving those credits. Starbucks realized this with its partnership with ASU. As a result, Starbucks employees enrolled in ASU Online have a team of coaches helping them navigate being an online student. It will be interesting to see how ASU addresses support services for students enrolled in MOOCs when no student will pay up front.

Ultimately, ASU’s foray into offering MOOCs for credit may provide a great opportunity for some students looking for a relatively convenient way to accumulate credits without facing any upfront costs. But it remains to be seen whether it is structured in a way that will be an open access pathway to a credential, regardless of a student’s income or where they’d ultimately like to earn their degree."