Three Ways to Get a Free College Education (With No Strings)

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Published November 17, 2011

| DailyFinance

Former Apple (AAPL) chief executive Steve Jobs wasn't your ordinary college dropout. Neither lazy nor disinterested in learning, Jobs wanted two things:

1. To save money (he was raised by working-class parents).
2. To focus his study on topics that engaged him.

The solution? Auditing. Jobs the dropout attended classes he found fascinating free of charge at Reed College. The experience changed him. As Jobs said in a 2005 commencement speech at Stanford:

"Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. ...

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"Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts."

Three Ways to Learn Like Steve Jobs

When Jobs was auditing calligraphy in the early 1970s, he needed the permission of generous administrators. Today, thanks to the Internet, millions of students around the world can audit thousands of classes and participate in lectures for the same price Jobs paid: zero. No permission required.

Here are three ways to get engaged with top universities and professors online.

1. iTunes U

It's perhaps an appropriate legacy for Jobs that the company he co-founded has set aside a section of its popular iTunes Store for colleges to post course-related audio and video. Dozens of top-name institutions are included.

For example, Yale offers 20 open courses as of this writing. As a financial analyst, I find myself particularly drawn to professor Douglas Rae's course on capitalism as seen through the lens of biological evolution. In all, iTunes U offers 23 lectures from his class, "Capitalism: Success, Crisis and Reform."

Other schools you'll find on iTunes U include UC Berkeley, which is offering more than 80 classes from its fall 2011 semester; Harvard University, which has posted its entire "Introduction to Computer Science" course; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has posted a course on designing the sorts of algorithms that govern much of today's World Wide Web.

To my biased mind, all that's missing is coursework from California Lutheran University. The small liberal arts school nestled in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where I received my undergraduate degree isn't offering content through iTunes U.

2. OnlineCollegeClasses.com

Organized by topic more than school, this free collection of resources subscribes to the idea that education is "an undeniable human right." Subsections of the site point to online classes organized by study area. Other services include indexes of videos, courseware, textbooks, podcasts, research archives, writing tutorials, and resources for language learning.

Online textbooks and other reading materials could prove particularly valuable for students who might otherwise spend hundreds on study materials. For example, the site has its own "Biology Pages" that includes links to most major themes and subthemes in the study of life.

Parents in particular are sure to appreciate the effort. The cost of college rose more than 400% from 1984 to 2007, or about three times as fast as the median U.S. family income, OnlineCollegeClasses.com says in a graphic arguing for free online education alternatives.

3. YouTube

YouTube houses a great number of educational resources. Pasadena's Art Center College of Design -- one of the nation's top schools in its area -- posts a select number of lectures via its channel. The London School of Economics posts research findings. And Stanford University offers a mixture of promos, event videos, and class lectures at its channel.

Combined, these and other awesome teaching sites such as Bill Gates favorite Khan Academy offer enterprising students more opportunity for learning than Jobs ever had in his lifetime. Fittingly, he was one of many catalysts for the shift we're now experiencing, a shift that represents an extraordinary gift to millions of financially strapped parents who hope to send children to college. Parents like me, in other words. I'm grateful for the assist.

Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers owned shares of Apple at the time of publication. Click that link to check out Tim's portfolio holdings and past columns.

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