Online Education Options Vary by More Than Cost

Students looking to learn a specific skill may pay less for online education than those seeking a degree.

pic7Viewing content on sites such as Udacity, Udemy and can cost anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars.

When it comes to online education, there are a lot of different options with a lot of different price points.

Prospective learners can choose between free massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that are not for credit, for instance, and for-credit courses, which can cost thousands of dollars.

“Almost all free courses are leisure learning courses, or courses you’re taking because you want to,” says Vicky Phillips, the CEO of, an advocacy website for distance-learning programs. “There’s usually no certification and no employment credibility. Usually when you have to pay you are paying for the certification, the standardization. The course has to meet certain quality standards.”

When it comes to determining which online course to take, academic or career goals are usually a major deciding factor, Phillips says. Still, examining the costs of different online education options can help you see what you’re getting for what you pay.

MOOCs and Other Free Online Courses

Subsidized by outside parties such as universities, MOOCs are among the most widely used form of free online education, and they come with both benefits and downsides, experts say.

MOOCs are generally free and for the most part offer no college credit or form of certification – unless the student pays to take an exam. One example is Coursera’s Signature Track program, available in select classes, in which a verified certificate typically costs $30 to $100.

While anyone can enroll in a MOOC, some of the courses can be equivalent to graduate courses, which can make the class difficult if you don’t have a background in the specific field, says Kenneth Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project, which examines the impact of computing, e-learning and information technology on higher education.

Additionally, with the low cost of MOOCs comes larger class sizes, often with thousands of students – even tens of thousands, says Michael Cusumano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, who has studied the economic implications of MOOCs.

As a result, MOOCs can be “notoriously weak in terms of interactivity,” says Steven Weiland, a professor in the education school at Michigan State University. Discussion boards can have thousands of responses, for instance, making them difficult to follow.

In terms of advantages, experts say many MOOCs are very well designed and are often taught by world-renowned faculty.

Christopher Wang, a third-year student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who has completed around 10 computer science-related MOOCs since his senior year of high school, says MOOCs allow him to learn simply for the sake of learning.

“I think a free course focuses more on learning as opposed to grade-achieving, something that gets lost in the real classroom and the accreditation route,” Wang says, and the flexibility of MOOCs enables him to withdraw if he finds a course uninteresting.

Beyond MOOCs, there are other free options out there, too. Sites like Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization, provide instructional videos and other interactive assessments for students.

Skills-based Online Options

Sites such as Udacity, Udemy and have become popular in the past few years, experts say, and they can cost anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars.

In contrast to MOOCs, the content on is packaged as educational videos that teach very specific skills, from InDesign typography to using Google Analytics. Members can access all the videos they want for $25 a month or $250 per year, plus premium options.

Udemy offers a similar concept, providing students with educational videos from experts around the world. And Udacity provides free access to course materials. However, students who pay for certain classes can obtain professor feedback and earn a verified Udacity certificate.

Certificate Programs at Colleges and Universities

Online certificate programs at colleges and universities typically last around a year, maybe two. They are generally cheaper to enroll in than online degree programs, says Brad Voeller, co-founder of CollegePlus, a company that helps students design customized bachelor’s degree programs. Enrollment is typically a few thousand dollars a year.

For example, at Pennsylvania State University—World Campus, students enrolled in a graduate certificate program in distance education who are taking fewer than 12 credits per semester pay $784 per credit, and those taking 12 or more credits pay a flat rate of $9,408, according to the school’s website.

“A certificate is recognized for if you want to change your career or re-specialize your career, which happens more and more frequently,” says’s Phillips.

Degree Programs

The most expensive option is an online degree program, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, just like a degree obtained through a typical college class.

Experts say degree programs are useful for developing transferable skills, such as writing and critical thinking, that aren’t specific to a certain career but instead are broader and can be applied to a range of jobs.

“Everyone should think, ‘Why am I taking this course?’ and then pick that course accordingly,” Phillips says.


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