Cut College Costs With Strategic Use of MOOCs

Experts see massive open online courses as the key to changing the university landscape and, potentially, creating greater social mobility.


You can cut the soaring cost of a college degree by forgoing at least part of a four-year campus experience and turning instead to MOOCs and other growing online learning opportunities.

Despite their slow acceptance initially, MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are catching on, and their use is changing the way universities do business, education analysts say. Over time, they could dramatically affect social mobility, some experts believe. You can take online courses in everything from statistics to strategic management.

“Ten years from now, college is going to look a lot different,” Stuart Butler, a Brookings Institute senior fellow and expert in higher education, says in this podcast.

“If you have a higher education system that actually does provide students with the skills they really need at a much lower cost than today, that’s good for everybody, and good for the economy,” he says.

Online courses will be a new means to advance yourself in the workplace, said Rick Levin, CEO of MOOCs platform Coursera and former president of Yale University, in a recent interview published by Fortune.

“We are going to see people’s economic opportunities substantially enhanced as the labor market recognizes these credentials. … It is growing really rapidly, and it serves a valuable social function.”

College costs can’t keep soaring and students can’t just keep on taking on more student loan debt, Butler and other experts say.

The average price of attending a public undergraduate institution in the 2013-14 school year was $12,894; for a private nonprofit, $24,433, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In 2010, outstanding student loan debt surpassed credit card debt, and the gap continues to grow. Outstanding student loan balances totaled $1.19 trillion at the end of the first quarter of 2015, up $78 billion from a year earlier, according to the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

At the same time, if you can get a degree, it tends to yield a big payoff, according to the statistics center:

  • Only 1 in 3 people age 24 to 29 has a bachelor’s or higher degree.
  • Median annual earnings for 25- to 34-year-olds who attained a bachelor’s or higher degree is $50,000, compared with $30,000 for those with high school diplomas as their highest attainment. That difference over a 40-year career would add up to about $800,000.
  • The unemployment rate for 25- to 34-year-olds who completed college was only 3.7 percent, compared with 10.5 percent for those who only completed high school.

The lower cost of online courses combined with improved technology could be the perfect storm that changes the education landscape, experts say.

Already, about 1 in 4 students takes some kind of classes through distance learning, the center says. More than 1 in 10 is enrolled exclusively in remote courses.

MOOCs have nearly 30,000 people enrolled, but the completion rate remains well under 5 percent, especially among those not seeking course credits and degrees. But the courses are being refined and accepted, proponents say.

Beside Coursera, started by two Stanford University professors, other major platforms for MOOCs include edX, launched jointly by Harvard University and MIT, and Udacity, offering specialty courses designed with Silicon Valley giants such as Google and Facebook.

Online learning extends higher education opportunities to more people, analysts say. MOOCs are especially effective, some say, at replacing the profitable “sage on a stage” lecture hall filled with hundreds of paying students listening to one professor delivering an introductory course.

Arizona State University recently teamed with edX to offer freshman-level courses for college credit for only $200 each.

“By opening up the college learning experience to a broader global audience of learners, and enabling low-risk exploration of college courses, we are helping to increase the number of potential college and university students and increase access to education,” Nancy Moss, communications director for edX, said of the initiative called Global Freshman Academy.

However, MOOCs can also reach beyond post-secondary education.

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller on May 4 revealed “an entirely new way to earn a graduate degree in business.” The College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is developing the first open online MBA, offered in part through Coursera.

The iMBA curriculum will be freely available for everyone.

“People of all backgrounds and life histories deserve a chance to earn the education they need to succeed in their lives,” Koller said. “This model is unique in offering enormous flexibility and unprecedented affordability, while maintaining the academic standards and rigor of a top degree program.”

MOOCs won’t be for everyone, and the four- or six-year campus tour may remain the norm for some time.

At ASU, speech and hearing science freshman Jenny Philp told The State Press that she wanted to experience in person everything that a campus has to offer rather than take online courses.

“I really wanted the college experience,” she said. “Being able to get the personalized one on one and interpersonal skills that you get from being on campus.”

Butler, of the Brookings Institute, predicts first-year students will slowly disappear from campuses. Those students now are schools’ cash cows, taking many introductory courses in which hundreds at a time are lectured cost effectively by one professor. When students take more MOOCs, perhaps they will delay attending campus until, say, their junior years, still partying at keggers, going Greek and otherwise partaking in campus social life, but perhaps for only two years instead of the traditional four.

Students and colleges will evaluate how important campus time is and how much it will cost.

“It doesn’t follow that all of these elements have to be delivered in the same way that they are today,” Butler said.

Greater customization in higher education is coming at a lower cost, he says.

What’s your take? Are online courses the future of higher education? Share with us in the comments.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

I know... every site you visit wants you to subscribe to their newsletter. But our news and advice is actually worth reading! For 25 years, I've been making people richer without making their eyes glaze over. You'll be glad you did. I guarantee it!

Read Next: 10 Debt Management Tips for New College Grads

Check Out Our Hottest Deals!

We're always adding new deals and coupons that'll save you big bucks. See the deals to the right and hundreds more in our Deals section.

Click here to explore 1,445 more deals!