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Not yet, but they're still worth exploring — along with a lot of other changes in the college landscape.

5 minute read

We’re moving toward a world where college is free, but a credential isn’t.

This summer, Starbucks launched a program offering half a college degree for free to its workers — the company will cover costs for your junior and senior years at Arizona State University, and the classes are online so baristas around the country can enroll.

That completely overshadowed AT&T’s announcement the day before that it would offer up to 100 paid internships for people who earn something called a nanodegree. Those fun-size degrees, from massively open online course (MOOC) platform Udacity, will also be an acceptable credential for entry-level software jobs at the company.

The backdrop of these innovations is a national student loan debate about the $1.2 billion in debt our college kids and grads have. Should those loans be forgiven? Could they be refinanced like other forms of debt? How can we do higher education better — faster, smarter, and cheaper?

Maybe it’s the MOOCs-and-mochas plan, maybe something else. But let’s back up…

What’s a MOOC?

MOOCs are massively open online courses offered through universities and online learning companies — usually for free.

While The New York Times dubbed 2012 “the year of the MOOC,” there’s a good chance you still haven’t heard of them. If that’s the case, watch this short overview from Dave Cormier, the researcher at University of Prince Edward Island, who came up with the idea…


Like brick-and-mortar college classes, the structure of MOOCs vary depending on the teacher. Some courses involve a few simple multiple-choice tests, while others involve writing papers. Most don’t require textbooks, though there may be recommended reading. Some teachers are boring, while others put in the extra effort for a one-way, kind of lonely learning experience.

“My genetics professor used a Charles Darwin bobblehead doll as a puppet, and my philosophy professor wore steampunk goggles when talking about the logic of time travel,” one Times writer who tried a few courses said. “My plodding nutrition professor might want to drink more organic coffee before class.”

But are they legit? Not so long ago, online degrees didn’t have much legitimacy. There were a lot of fly-by-night schools not accredited by anybody and not associated with anybody accredited. Now, though, there are MOOCs taught to thousands of people by respected Ivy League professors; and most of the major MOOC platforms were built or funded by top schools.

edX was started by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has gained many partners since, including the University of California-Berkeley, Dartmouth, and many international schools.

Coursera was founded by two computer science professors at Stanford, which is also where Udacity comes from.

What’s a nanodegree?

Udacity is the one who came up with “nanodegree,” so let’s let them explain it:

Leading technology companies design and teach nanodegrees with our help, and also endorse them. They know what technical skills they need to hire for and which new skills their employees need. Because they use the technologies and skills they teach, they teach them in a concrete applicable way. Nanodegrees also focus on learning by doing so you can practice and demonstrate your new skills.

The programs are designed to be completed in less than a year, and will cost about $200 per month. (AT&T does plan to offer scholarships, but doesn’t say how many.) Other nanodegrees are in the works, Udacity says, including for these high-tech positions:

  • Front-end web developer (in partnership with AT&T, Google, and Autodesk)
  • Back-end web developer (in partnership with AT&T)
  • Apple iOS developer (in partnership with AT&T)
  • Data analyst (in partnership with Facebook, AT&T, Cloudera, and MongoDB)

This isn’t Udacity’s first partnership with AT&T. Last year, they and The Georgia Institute of Technology launched “the first accredited Master of Science in Computer Science that students can earn exclusively through the Massive Open Online Course.” But you do need a traditional bachelor’s degree to get in, and it costs about $7,000, paid in the traditional per-credit-hour way.

Can you get an actual traditional bachelor’s degree using MOOCs? For free?

Probably not — at least not yet.

A guy named Jonathan Haber spent all of 2013 taking courses to earn the equivalent of a B.A. in philosophy. He documented it on a blog called Degree of Freedom throughout the year, and still writes about MOOCs and online learning.

Haber took more than 30 courses during that timeframe, something you wouldn’t be able to do at a traditional university even if you could afford it. He learned a lot of stuff — enough to hold his own at an academic conference of PhDs, which he says was his goal — and has certificates of accomplishment from each course. He’s also publishing a book about it this fall. Sounds like a success, but he got no actual credential from it.


The downside of MOOCs

Many people have asked for something like a MOOC degree — a sloppy but earnest petition to Michelle Obama calls for an “American Nationally Accredited MOOCs University” — but it’s not clear how many are motivated enough to actually try to get one, nano- or otherwise.

A recent 210-page report from Columbia University researchers called MOOCs: Expectations and Reality looked at everything from the costs of video production for MOOCs to how universities are using them. It noted, among many other things:

  • Most people who take, complete and pass MOOCs are already well-educated.
  • MOOCs offer a low-risk alternative for community college students who can’t afford to take, fail, and retake a basic math course.
  • MOOCs aren’t going to help people who aren’t self-starters.

On that last point, here’s a case study: the MOOC partnership between San Jose State University and Udacity last year. San Jose offered three introductory online courses with smaller class sizes and mentors. Lone behold the students fell flat on their faces. “In the algebra class, fewer than a quarter of the students — and only 12 percent of the high school students — earned a passing grade,” The New York Times noted. Their peers in the brick-and-mortar classrooms did better.

Colorado State University was the first to offer transfer credit for a computer science MOOC, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote back in 2012. It cost just $89, to cover a proctored exam proving you knew the material. And a year after putting that offer on the table, not one person took them up on it.

Taking classes over again

Since then, a handful of schools including Central Michigan University, and the University of Maryland University College have offered transfer credit for certain MOOCs. Instead of fighting for transfer credit, serious students also have the option to take free courses and then pay to take CLEP exams for credit.

The College-Level Examination Program developed by College Board (the SAT people) is recognized by nearly 3,000 universities and can award 3 to 12 credits for each $80 exam. The subject areas they offer include:

  • History & Social Sciences
  • Composition & Literature
  • Science & Mathematics
  • Business
  • World Languages

In other words, these are classes that cover core requirements for a bachelor’s degree — stuff you would take in your first two years of college before moving into your major area of study. Which is what Starbucks is willing to cover for its employees. MOOCs and mochas.

But the people most likely to gain from MOOCs are those who already have a well-rounded, student loan-funded college education. They don’t need to worry about earning a credential, just boosting their earning potential and paying down their debt. And they can pick up new knowledge and skills for free, worry-free.

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About the Author

Brandon Ballenger

Brandon Ballenger

Ballenger is a writer for and its first political columnist.

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