Can Free Online Programs offer Legitimate Degrees for the Same Price?

“Free” online education isn’t exactly new. For years prestigious institutions like Harvard, MIT, and Yale have offered open courseware as a service to the community. Open courseware, while still useful for eager learners, has its own slew of complications. For starters, students have to more or less teach themselves the subject at hand using a contemplation of class material like syllabi, test keys, video lectures, and course readings. Not only are there no peers or professors to offer feedback, but courses can be extremely dated. And of course, students do not earn a degree or even credits once the coursework is completed.

Free Online Courses For Everyone

Coursera, a social entrepreneurship/higher education company, partnered with universities all over the world in the hopes of “perfecting” the open courseware platform by offering free updated and peer-reviewed online courses to students around the world. However, there is still one major problem: students cannot earn credits. Coursera does offer a “certificate” for students who are able to demonstrate mastery of the subject, but as far as earning a full-fledged degree from completing coursework that is out of the question.

Can Free Online Programs offer Legitimate Degrees for the Same Price?

Or is it?

Coursera might not be able to offer valid degrees for taking free online classes, but the University of the People says it can.

The Word’s First Tuition-Free Online University

Founded in 2009 by educational entrepreneur Shai Reshef, UoPeople is a non-profit online institution that offers a four-year undergraduate education to students around the world.  Thanks to affiliates like the Clinton Global Initiative and Yale Law School ISP, sponsors like Hewlett-Packard and Intel, and volunteer educators from NYU, Harvard, and Oxford to run the classes, UoPeople is able to stay in business and offer a higher education free of charge.

David Harris Cohen, UoPeople’s provost, is Columbia University’s former vice president.

With all that said, the credentials are there. Perhaps this is what prompted 1,500 students from more than 130 different countries to enroll.

But is it really that easy?

First of all, nothing is ever truly free. Applications vary from $10 to $50 depending on what part of the country you live in and its economic status—for example, poorer countries will only be required to pay the minimum of $10. And there will be a one-time $100 examination fee in place if you’re accepted.

The online institution is also exceptionally limited in terms of courseware. Since its founders believe that students should earn degrees that will provide the greatest job opportunities in the working world, UoPeople only offers Business Administration and Computer Science programs.

Lastly, while UoPeople does offer credits, it’s important to note that currently UoPeople is unaccredited (which may look bad to potential employers) and credits are non-transferrable unless you plan on attending New York University-Abu Dhabi.

New York University agreed to let UoPeople students continue their education for free at the Dhabi location after completing one year of their original program online. Of course, Dhabi is located nearly on the other side of the world, so the option is voluntary.  But it could be a really neat chance of a lifetime.

Do the pros out-weigh the cons? What do you think? Should students try out UoPeople?

Author infoNancy Wood is a regular contributor to, a website dedicated to online higher learning. She welcomes your feedback.

Updated: July 20, 2018 — 6:48 am

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