Why a College Education Could Be Free Someday

By Laura ShinLearnVest

Late last year, total student loan debt in the United States reached $1 trillion, a situation that set off a lot of hand-wringing.

And for the people bearing the burden of the debt, the crisis is a deeply personal one.

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At the time, few could have predicted that a revolution was already in the works that could someday make student loan debt a thing of the past.

But MOOCs–the nickname for Massive Open Online Courses, which offer elite college-level instruction to anyone with an internet connection–have exploded over the last year, drawing students from locations as far-flung as Sri Lanka and Nepal and even stimulating the minds of retirees in Indiana. The biggest of the companies offering MOOCs, Coursera, had an enrollment of 1.7 million this fall.

And what’s the price tag on these courses offered by professors from such top universities as Stanford, Harvard and Duke?


We explain the growing business behind MOOCs, how they could affect the business of higher education in this country and around the world–and how they could impact the wallets (and debts) of future students.

RELATED: What to Do If You’re Struggling With Student Loan Payments

Companies Offering MOOCs: The Playing Field

Before we dive into how the industry behind MOOCs developed, we’d like to clarify that MOOCs aren’t just regular online courses, which have been around for a while. Traditional online courses are like regular college classes: You have to pay tuition to take them, but you get credit and a small class size in return. MOOCs, on the other hand, are usually free, don’t offer credit and have unlimited class sizes, which means that professors can’t personally respond to students.

So how did this whole revolution get started? In the fall of 2011, then-Stanford computer science professor Sebastian Thrun decided to offer a free course in artificial intelligence. He had no idea how many students his grand experiment would attract, but he ventured that 10,000 would sign up.

The actual enrollment: 160,000 from 190 nations.

The experience prompted him to declare, “I can’t teach at Stanford again,” and then he launched Udacity, one of the key players in the field of MOOCs. The wild success of the course lured others into the burgeoning field, including these major players:

  • Coursera This is the largest of the MOOCS, and was founded last January by two other Stanford computer professors, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. It has 33 university partners, including Stanford, Duke, Columbia and Brown. Students can earn certificates of completion, but academic credit is only available to students who take an enhanced version of a course offered at the University of Washington.
  • edX A non-profit venture funded by Harvard and MIT, edX only has two other partners–the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Texas system. This fall, 370,000 students enrolled in its first official courses.
  • Udacity This math- and computer science-focused “21st-century university” designs and produces its own courses, with help from companies like Google and Microsoft, and is funded by venture capital money. The company prides itself on choosing instructors who are good teachers, even if they are not known for their research. Students in one Udacity class, Introduction to Computer Science, can get credit through the Global Campus of Colorado State University.