Through Academy, Education Barriers, And Borders, Fall

Global Freshman Academy allows first-year students from around the world to amass credits and fulfill requirements online. Courtesy photo

Global Freshman Academy allows first-year students from around the world to amass credits and fulfill requirements online. Courtesy photo

A 40-year-old Portuguese man, an expatriate mother of three living in Dubai, and a twelfth-grader from Taiwan are among the thousands who have flocked in the past year to the Global Freshman Academy, a collaboration between Arizona State University and edX, the online learning nonprofit co-founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The self-paced program, entering its second year this August, is a new model for undergraduate education that allows students anywhere to take their freshman year online. As they pass each course, they pay a fee of $600 for a three-credit-hour course, if they choose; at the end of the year those who complete the requisite courses and amass enough credits are eligible to start their sophomore year of college.

Global Freshman Academy students can receive college credit without an application or transcript, removing some major barriers to a college education.


“This is really radically changing the way we do education,” says Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. “The academy is the first step in what we call the ‘unbundling’ of college education. We’re providing students with an optional pathway through education. There really is very little risk up front for them.”

It’s a “pay as you pass” model that completely inverts the conventional admissions process, Agarwal says — and as it nears the end of its first year, the unconventional program is off to a running start, with more than 150,000 students around the world signing up for a broad range of general education classes.

The first to buy a college credit from the Global Freshman Academy, Agarwal says, was Miguel Joao Coelho da Rocha Ribeiro, a 40-year-old man from Portugal who took the Solar Systems Astronomy class. Since the start of the program, students seeking academic credit at ASU have qualified for 175 credit conversions, a figure that includes students who purchased credits from multiple courses as well as those who converted for credit from all the courses that have been offered and completed.

“The fact that 150,000 students are taking our courses is certainly very promising, and it has met our expectations in the program’s pilot year,” Agarwal says. “Students do have one year from the end of their course in which to buy credit, so there’s still a ways to go before we know how many will do that.”


The academy was designed with three demographic groups in mind: incoming freshman, people returning to complete college later in life and educators and life-long learners, Agarwal says.

Those who amass enough college credit at ASU can complete their freshman year at a steep discount, roughly half of the current in-state tuition, or about $6,000, he says. They are then eligible to apply to enter the school as a sophomore.

In the program’s first year, its general education courses included English Composition, Human Origins, College Algebra and Problem Solving, and Introduction to Solar Systems Astronomy. Plans are under way to offer more business courses to students in the coming year, says Adrian Sannier, chief academic technology officer for EdPlus at ASU. For example, next spring, Bart Hobijn, a professor of economics in ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business, will teach a class on macroeconomic principles.


Enrollment the first year has been robust, with about 1,000 people signing up each week for one or more of the academy’s courses, Sannier says. The school’s goal is to have between 3,000 and 5,000 new students entering the school each week, he says.

A typical class attracts 20,000 students, he adds; the most popular class to date has been English composition, with more than 32,000 students enrolled.

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