How Can Online Programs Help College Students Save Money? ASU and EdX Share Their Solutions to Make College More Affordable
This episode is part of an EdTech Times series called Challenges and Solutions for Student Financial Aid & Debt.
With the rising cost of college tuition, more and more prospective students are looking for ways to get advanced degrees without taking out hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of student loans.
Amongst the solutions to this educational gap are low-cost online programs that allow students of all ages to work through their degrees on their own time, and earn college credit through a non-traditional pathway.
To learn more about the different ways options for students to save money with online degrees, we interviewed leaders at ASU and EdX about the unique programs and partnerships they have established to provide access to an affordable college education to students around the world.
HESTER: As online courses become more popular, colleges like Arizona State University are designing programs to satisfy the demand for accessible college courses. One such program at ASU is EdPlus, run by CEO Phil Regier.
PHIL: EdPlus at ASU is the umbrella organization that the university has set up to advance everything that we do with digital technology and teaching, both in the on-campus and in the online environment.
HESTER: EdX is another online learning organization, run by CEO and MIT professor Anant Agarwal.
ANANT: EdX is a online learning destination, a nonprofit founded by Harvard and MIT. We offer great free courses from some of the top universities in the world and other institutions.
ANANT: So we have a number of learners on EdX today. They’re taking courses and programs on EdX, they’re getting jobs. So EdX certificates are appearing hugely on LinkedIn. A lot of employers are telling us that people are applying for jobs and using EdX credential to get jobs.
HESTER: ASU and EdX have combined their efforts to create Global Freshman Academy, a set of online courses open to anyone, anywhere in the world. The classes are free, and credits can be transferred to other institutions after the course is completed. We spoke with Leah Lommel, COO of EdPlus and ASU Online, about this new way of earning college credit.
LEAH: Well we launched our Global Freshman Academy a while ago. We keep finding new uses of it. It started as a way to get credits for college, and it’s grown into something that people are trying to earn their way into a university setting. They may have taken too many years off, or they don’t have another way to bring their GPA up. And they’re finding that these Global Freshman Academy classes are a no-risk way to really focus on getting back into an academic setting. So we’re focusing more on earned admission pathways, both domestically and internationally, so that the pipeline of students coming to ASU, when they’re ready to get their degrees, is much richer and stronger and more able to succeed.
HESTER: As online courses become more accessible, some companies are sponsoring their employees so they can take courses and get credit for free. According to Phil Regier, Starbucks is one example, partnering with ASU to help its employees gain college credit for a degree without having to leave their jobs.
PHIL: The Starbucks College Achievement Plan is a partnership between Arizona State University and Starbucks. It allows any partner, which is what Starbucks refers to its employees as—Any Starbucks partner in the US who does not have an undergraduate degree can receive an undergraduate degree online through Arizona State University online with no out-of-pocket tuition cost. The only requirements really are the student has to be admissible to ASU, and they have to be benefits eligible at Starbucks. And they can’t also have—already have an undergraduate degree.
HESTER: But what prompted ASU and the global retail company to join forces?
PHIL: In the case of Starbucks and ASU, there was a real alignment around the value of degrees and the value of the degree to partners of Starbucks. In the case of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, felt that degree attainment in education was, to this generation of partners, kind of what healthcare was to partners in the 1980s, when he pioneered healthcare benefits for part-time workers.
PHIL: Certainly the motivation for it from the start was, from ASU’s sense, we wanted to expand to another group of students that we weren’t able to access. And from Howard’s viewpoint, he wanted to provide a benefit that his baristas would appreciate and be able to benefit from in the long term.
HESTER: For many students, much of the value of higher education lies in networking. But without a college campus, how can online students connect?
LEAH: I think the first thing that you have to realize is that online students want to be able to engage with the university at all the same levels as those who may be able to physically attend their classes.
LEAH: This isn’t just a social media for higher ed, but a true engagement that gives them a safe zone to collaborate with one another, come together with like cohorts. So, for example, our Starbucks students can all collaborate with one another, or our veteran students can talk to one another. So they see the synergies amongst the group, the students that they may or may not be in classes with, but they’re all trying to achieve similar goals of getting their bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree.
HESTER: More and more adults are going back to school for their bachelor’s or master’s degrees while still working full-time or part-time jobs. According to Anant Agarwal, this older demographic is one of the target audiences for these online programs.
ANANT: This is providing an alternate pathway for those that may have been bounced along by life a little bit. They’re working, they always wanted to go back to school, and they can dip their toe in the water, so to speak, and see how it feels. And then they can learn in a very low risk, non-threatening environment, where they can just try out these courses and say oh my God, you know, I could succeed.
HESTER: As the job market evolves, it’s becoming more important to have a college degree, even for entry-level positions. As Leah Lommel says, online learning programs want to prepare students for a changing workforce by exposing them early on to effective ways of using digital methods to learn and to improve their own experiences.
LEAH: Actually, I always like to say the online degrees are going to be more helpful for some students, because the workforce has moved so digital and global. And being able to interact effectively in a digital environment is really important when you’re entering the workforce. So intrinsically, those online programs are already preparing them on how to be effective in a digital environment. But additionally, we start our students off with all kinds of tools to help them be successful—such as an assessment to understand where their strengths are, how to manage their time. And then the soft skills and how to map your academics to your career lifecycle is something that we start right when they start college. So that they understand, this isn’t just a degree that you have a goal for, this is a career you have a goal for. And how are you going to enter that workplace? And constantly engaging them in a dialogue.
LEAH: So constantly bringing the students together in an online format is bigger than them just completing a series of courses or credits. And then, it’s bigger than the current students, because there is such an educational gap. So we focus a lot on pathways and pipelines of educating more students to become college ready and become successful in college.
HESTER: Online learning programs are working to bridge the gap between those who can afford a traditional degree and those who can’t. EdPlus wants to see other universities embrace accessible online learning programs and make it so that anyone who wants to earn a degree can do so on their own schedule without suffering massive amounts of debt, according to Phil Regier.
PHIL: We don’t think there are enough universities embracing this model right now. As I said, I think the US is in a higher education crisis, I think we’re in an educational crisis in general, but whatever the problems might be in the U.S….are swamped by the global problems that we face if we don’t figure out ways to provision higher education for massive numbers of people going forward.
PHIL: I really think that what we’re trying to do is provide a set of models to show people how they can make a difference at their particular university or their particular college in meeting some of the demands and some of the needs for higher education in the U.S.
HESTER: As online programs continue to expand, these low-cost, low-commitment degree pathways will hopefully become an easier way for adults and first-time learners alike to earn college credit while avoiding student debt.