Test Drive Before You Buy

Test Drive Before You Buy

cycling guy

Elsewhere we explored “The Costs of Excess Credits,” or taking more credit hours than necessary toward completion of a degree. One quick and easy way to contend with the rising costs of college is to take as few classes as possible en route to graduation. But what options do we have if we want to explore majors, might need remedial instruction, or just want to take classes for enjoyment?

With other goods like sweaters and cars we can usually try out the product for fit before we pony up funds and commit to its purchase. Unfortunately, the traditional college experience offers very little opportunity to do this. Sure, we can enroll in a class and drop it within a certain time frame for full refund but students who do this will find the registration process onerous, class availability limited, and the pressure to back out within a refund period non-conducive for full exploration.

Fortunately, today’s student has access to top-level classes without the restrictions of geography or seating availability. Further, these classes are usually free and sometimes nominally priced. 


Welcome to the world of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. Today several MOOC providers such as Coursera, EdX, Udacity, and iTunes U offer online classes from higher education bastions such as Stanford, The University of Chicago, MIT, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and Berkeley, as well as direct technical training from such tech giants as Google, Autodesk, and Salesforce.

Courses run the gamut from Chinese history to astrophysics, from jazz appreciation to differential equations. I literally have yet to think of a single educational topic that I can’t find a MOOC for. Students can partake in a class as little or as much as they want and drop anytime with little penalty considering the bulk of the classes are free. Classes and lectures are online but may assign readings and homework for the more serious partakers.

While traditionally students have not gotten college credits for participation and completion of assignments, this has begun to change with many universities accepting MOOC courses for partial credit. Further, many of the MOOCs will issue certificates upon completion of coursework and tests. Increasingly employers, particularly in the tech fields, have begun to give these credence and recruit more promising students.


With MOOCs proliferating exploratory and remedial students no longer have an excuse to take needless and expensive classes on-campus. The MOOCs themselves may not get you closer to a degree, but they can ensure that you only work toward, and pay for, the degree you want from a traditional school with its traditional prices.