A Novel Way To Spend Your Freshman Year Off Campus

Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, the non-profit learning organization

Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, the non-profit learning organization


It’s been four years since Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, the father of disruptive innovation theory, warned that technology would bring large-scale change to higher education. Universities have since been rolling out hundreds of online degree programs and thousands of free MOOCs (massive open online courses).

But one of most potentially disruptive initiatives in education is being launched today (April 22) by Arizona State University and edX, the online learning non-profit founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Arizona State will allow students anywhere in the world to take their entire freshman year of courses online and then use the college credit earned to complete undergraduate studies at either its campus or any other university willing to accept those transfer credits.

Like other MOOCs, the courses are free, but if a student wants to earn college credit for them, he or she would pay $200 per credit and only after the course is passed by the student. There will be no required SAT, transcript of high school grades, or application to join what is being called the Global Freshman Academy. Because the series is hosted and administered online, learning can occur anywhere, at any time of day, any day of the week.


“This is very new and revolutionary,” says Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX. “This is the first time any MOOC provider will offer a curriculum of courses that any learner can take for free or for a small fee as a verified student and then parlay that for credit if they pass the course. That automatic step of being able to convert a set of courses through university credit is novel and has not been done before.”

The new offering is sure to raise eyebrows in academia where change occurs only slowly and with great reservation. The model makes freshman year relatively risk free and significantly less expensive than the more typical first year of study on a college campus. The cost for eight three-credit classes will total only $5,160, including a $45 verified student fee for each course. That compares with Arizona State’s out-of-state annual tuition of $24,503, or the estimated cost of a year on-campus of $39,601, including room and board.

As many as 40% of those who enter a U.S. college fail to get a degree within six years. So insuring that a student is college-ready and able to complete the first year at a fraction of the on-campus cost will potentially disrupt traditional education. “This will create an inversion of the college model, a completely new way to enter college,” believes Agarwal, “For under $6,000, you would have completed a freshman year’s worth of courses. The important thing is you have to pay for credit only if you want to and only if you pass the course. So you take out any risks.


“This is truly game changing and turns the entire college model on its head,” adds Agarwal. “Even if I am a high school student in Mongolia, I could take these courses for free and if I pass them, I can sign up as a student for a small fee and get credit for a complete freshman year at a very low cost.”

The 12 to 15 courses that ASU plans to make available will have a  general studies focus, including mathematical studies, humanities, arts and design, social-behavioral sciences and natural sciences. The first course in the freshman sequence, Introduction to Astronomy by professor Frank Timmes, will debut this August. Then, in September, two more courses will open for enrollment: Western Civilizations: Ancient and Medieval Europe as well as Human Origins, the latter taught by Donald Johanson, who discovered the hominid skeleton known as “Lucy.” The university said it will offer seven different courses in the first year of the program and 12 within the first 24 months.

Until now, perhaps the most disruptive move in higher ed was taken by Georgia Tech last year when it launched a one-year master’s program in computer science online. The cost of obtaining the Georgia Tech degree was priced at just $6,600 instead of the $46,000 out‑of-state tuition expense for an on-campus degree. Some 1,286 degree candidate students enrolled in the program, more than quadruple the number of on–campus enrollees. But the potential audience for a focused master’s program in computer science is very small compared to this new ASU venture.

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