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How to Go Back to College for Free

Abby Hayes

Since the advent of the Internet, we've seen a trend toward free information. Open source software. Free news. Free music streaming.

Recently, that trend toward free information has stepped up a notch. Now, you can even go back to school for free.

There are, of course, a few caveats. But the bottom line is that the new open courseware model could open a whole new world of possibilities for your future education. Here's the skinny on how you can go back to college for free:

The Basics of Open Courseware

Open courseware is available through several platforms, including the popular Coursera, which offers classes from a variety of top-ranked universities. Many of the Ivy League schools and other colleges, including Harvard University, Yale University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University and Carnegie Mellon University, offer online classes as well.

The courses available through these platforms are completely free, and the way they work varies. Some are based on slideshows and videos, while others have interactive online sessions and forums. However, they're all taught by qualified college professors, many with advanced degrees and years of teaching experience.

Courses can be an entire semester or shorter sessions if they focus on a specific idea, book or author. For example, some of the courses currently available through Coursera include:

-- Calculus: Single Variable through the University of Pennsylvania

-- Understanding Media By Understanding Google through Northwestern University

-- Introduction to Digital Sound Design through Emory University

-- Foundations of Business Strategy through the University of Virginia

-- The Meat We Eat through the University of Florida

What's the Catch?

The catch, of course, is that you can't get a free college degree through free online courses. Those still cost lots of money. You can, however, enhance your education for personal or professional purposes through these classes.

And if you have a pure love of learning, these free courses may appeal to you. The best part is that you can take the majority of courses in your leisure time. You can challenge yourself to keep up with the work and forum discussions, of course. But if you can't, you can work through the materials at your own pace. For most of these platforms, you have plenty of time to complete the materials during the course time frame.

But what if you want to use these platforms to further your career or current education goals? You can do that, too. Most of the courses offer certificates of completion. They're usually just pass/fail. Either you complete all the work or you don't.

Some institutions may accept those certificates as coursework that can be applied toward a real degree. Or you could just use them to prove to an employer you have the skills necessary to move up in your job -- degree or no degree.

Another option is to take the courses to learn subjects you can then test out of at college. This is particularly helpful with courses like the comprehensive calculus course. If you didn't take calculus in high school, take it in an open format online. Then take the College Level Examination Program exam, which will cost about $80. At most schools, you can receive college credit for passing CLEP and AP tests. Ultimately, they can help you bypass lower-level classes and pay for fewer credits.

Will free online classes get you a bachelor's degree and a job as a professor? Not any time soon. But as these platforms develop, you'll likely find they're more and more useful. For now, they're a great option for enhancing your education and broadening your mind -- without paying a dime.

Abby Hayes is a freelance blogger and journalist who writes for personal finance blog The Dough Roller and contributes to Dough Roller's weekly newsletter.

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