Free College Is Now Here … Really delivers "Freshman Year for Free."

August 21, 2017 7:00 am
(Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)
(Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Something important happened in the field of education this month.

For the first time ever, any student anywhere can take top-quality courses online in every major freshman college subject, taught by professors from the most prestigious universities, that lead to full academic credit at 2,900 traditional colleges, such as Purdue, Penn State, Colorado State and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, all absolutely free.

There is no tuition cost. No text book cost. No administrative or connection fees. No taxpayer subsidy or federal Title IV funding required. And this is not a plan for the future, but a working reality available to students now, already built, entirely as a private 501(c)(3) philanthropy, at an exceptionally efficient price.

The charity that built the courses, over 40 in all, is called the Modern States Education Alliance. It has a bipartisan set of allies that include the nation’s largest public college systems, such as the State University of New York system and Texas State, which themselves serve over one million students and want to improve college access. Modern States is a new type of “on-ramp to college” for any hardworking person anywhere, and a way to cut the cost of traditional four-year college by many thousands of dollars and up to 25 percent.

Now, anyone can go to, the way they go to Netflix, and choose a college course the way they pick a Netflix movie. There is no charge for the course and no charge for the online textbook that comes with it. The student can watch the lectures at any time of the day or night, repeating any part of it as often as needed. When the student feels ready, they can take the CLEP exam (a well-established, credit-bearing test from the College Board, described below) almost anywhere at any time at one of the thousands of already existing test sites.

“Through Modern States, anyone with a mobile phone or an internet connection can now access an entire year of credit-creating college courses, from top professors, for free.”

For comparison, the cost of a traditional (i.e., non-Modern States) online or “in-person” college course from a top professor for credit often costs $1,000 or more; sometimes $2,000 when the price of books, fees and travel are included. The cost of a full year of college for credit can often be over $10,000 per year. In contrast, everything from Modern States is 100 percent free. The only potential charge is the $85 fee charged by the College Board to take a CLEP exam. Through Modern States, I’ve funded the courses and website, and agreed to pay for the first 10,000 exams. We hope to recruit other donors to help pay other students’ exam-fees beyond that; hopefully, all of them. Students can use Modern States “Freshman Year for Free” for one course or many courses. Eight courses generally equate to a full freshman year for free when students enter a school that accepts CLEPs for full credit.

Online college courses have been in existence for over 20 years, and over 5 million students take online college courses today. However, when the courses lead to traditional academic credit at major institutions, they almost always cost the same as “in-person” courses. Beginning around 2012, some of the best universities, such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT, began to give away some of their best online courses for free as “MOOCs” (massively open online courses). However, these free courses did not lead to academic credit in the traditional system, presumably because the premier universities did not want to dilute the value of their traditional degrees by creating hundreds of thousands of additional accredited graduates.

Therefore, America has had a system with (often mediocre) courses for credit at a high cost, or (sometimes great) courses at no cost but no credit. There was an obvious need to bridge the gap: to find a way to have top-quality free courses that lead to real credits as well.

I began to personally work on this question about five years ago. I make my living as head of a growth-oriented private equity firm, but I have been involved in education reform as an avocation for many years: for example, I founded after-school programs, schools and professorships beginning in 1993 and filled Jeb Bush’s seat as chair of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance after he left to run for president. I began to write editorials on the need for credit-bearing free college courses beginning in 2012, and later enlisted David Bergeron (who oversaw post-secondary education at the Department of Education and then became a scholar at the Center for American Progress) as a bipartisan co-author. The initial idea was to change the accreditation system itself by creating a new type of accreditor to review and approve the best free courses. I went down to Washington during the Obama years to meet with the Department of Education and others to promote this idea. House Speaker Paul Ryan cited the Modern States ideas positively in his anti-poverty writings. However, it became clear to me that a change to the accreditation system itself was beyond my power as a private citizen to achieve. My colleagues and I started to look for other, more practical ways to accomplish the same “free courses for real credit” goal.

Modern States, and its just-launched program “Freshman Year for Free,” accomplishes this mission for freshman year at least, in an exceptionally simple and cost-efficient way.

We realized that, while there are courses without paths to credit, there have also been paths to credit without courses: principally, the Advanced Placement (AP) exams and College Level Examination Placement (CLEP) exams offered by the non-profit College Board for over 50 years.

Most people are probably familiar with the AP exams, but for purposes of creating a universal “on-ramp to college,” the lesser known CLEP exam is even more interesting. AP exams are given only in high schools to their students in May. CLEP exams are available to anyone, of any description, every day at thousands of testing sites, and CLEP exams are already offered free-of-charge to any active member of the U.S. military.

About 175,000 people took a CLEP exam last year, and – most importantly – a passing score on a CLEP exam (generally, 50 or above) will earn the test taker full course credit at 2,900 traditional universities when a student enters that school, just as if it was a transfer credit from community college. Each college explains in its admissions catalog which CLEP exam scores it will or won’t accept. The CLEP tests are available in over 30 freshman year subjects, from chemistry to sociology, to microeconomics, on down. The major state colleges, such as Michigan State, Colorado State, Purdue, Penn State, the SUNY system, Texas State, and all the public colleges in Kansas already welcome CLEP exam takers with full credit awarded, and so do many other schools.

Based on this understanding, Modern States has spent the last three years building a full set of top-quality, free online courses, with free online textbooks, for every subject where there is a CLEP exam in existence (over 30 courses). We have also built or gathered a catalog of top AP courses (12 subjects, some with multiple parts, for over 30 AP offerings in all).  Each course is specifically tied to the academic scope and sequence tested by one of those exams.

We commissioned EdX, the online arm of Harvard and MIT, to build the AP courses. We also commissioned an organization called IBL to create the CLEP courses, all of which are available at

Commissioning a course means we recruited the best available professor in each subject, from the most prestigious possible university, to develop and give the online lectures and computer simulations, with free online textbooks and readings, and actual practice questions provided by the College Board. For example, Paul Schiff Berman, the Walter S. Cox Professor at George Washington Law School teaches the “Introductory Business Law” CLEP course. Professor Berman was dean of the George Washington Law School until 2013. Similarly, Dr. James Murphy of Johns Hopkins teaches the introductory college math courses at the CLEP level, and faculty from MIT and Davidson teach the three more advanced Calculus units at the AP level. Modern States courses are led by faculty from Columbia, Purdue, Rutgers, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Tufts, Baruch College, University of Texas, Cal Berkeley, SUNY, Washington State, and elsewhere – all 100% free of charge to students and taxpayers, and with no prerequisites to entry.

We began beta testing a portion of our courses this summer and have the full slate of over 40 courses on our site as of this month, our official launch. Over 13,000 students have signed on to the Modern States site already, almost all who found us before any launch publicity.

The Modern States offerings can be helpful to a wide range of people. This past summer, I called to congratulate the first student ever to take a Modern States course and pass the CLEP. He is a 17-year-old home schooler in Oregon who passed a chemistry course, taught by a professor from Columbia. I asked him if he planned to go to college.  No, he told me, he plans to be an electrician! But he has since passed two more CLEP exams with our program and perhaps he will change his mind.

Modern States
(Modern States)

We have talked to other successful Modern States users. One was a working mom who needs to take care of her one-year-old. She goes to Modern States at one in the morning, after work, and can learn from home.

Another student was a 26-year-old, who was one course away from graduation when he fell on some tough times and couldn’t afford to finish. He got his last course done, and earned his degree, for free through Modern States.

Through Modern States, anyone with a mobile phone or an internet connection can now access an entire year of credit-creating college courses, from top professors, for free. You can be a 14-year-old prodigy, an 85-year-old lifelong learner, a rock musician on the road, a veteran overseas: anyone, anywhere, for free.

The courses and materials can also be used in other ways, whether for credit or not. A high school teacher might ask her kids to watch a Modern States lecture at home and then come to class to discuss it with her next day. A poor or rural high school that does not have a trained teacher in a particular subject can use the Modern States courses for free to provide that expertise under the school faculty’s supervision.

The economies of scale are compelling. Like a movie or a YouTube video, once the program is produced and online, it costs nothing for another viewer to watch it.  The more, the merrier. The Modern States courses and textbooks have now been finished and paid for. The goal is to have them benefit as many users as possible from here.

The savings to society can be large. Again, about five million students a year take traditional online courses for credit now, often at $1,000 or more per course. As a goal, I have asked my team to strive to serve one million students through Modern States cumulatively over a period of years which – by saving $1,000 per course, one million times –  could produce $1 billion in savings, as compared to the single-digit millions it cost me to build the Modern States website and its courses to date. In a best case, the number of users could be much larger than a million, and there is no upper limit. In a worst case, if there are only a few users, at least we have satisfied a moral imperative – making a path to education available. Also, worst case, if no allies can be found to help students pay exam fees past my original 10,000-exam gift, the $85 College Board cost is still a tiny fraction of the cost of existing courses for credit. Meanwhile, I remain hopeful that other donors – from local civic groups to major foundations or the government itself – will, in fact, come forward.

“The moral imperative is clear. Access to education is fundamental to a world that respects every individual and fundamental to the American dream.”

The Modern States paradigm – nationally accepted certification tests with top-quality free courses behind them – can also find applications in other areas. For example, in vocational training, America now uses Title IV to pay tens of thousands of dollars per student to trade schools that may not lead to a degree or a job.  Would it be better to encourage real-world companies to hire unskilled workers as apprentices, equip them with a library of free Modern States-style technical courses to help train the worker for a nationally recognized skills certification test, and then use a lesser amount of Title IV funds than now to pay the employer or worker a bonus when the tests are passed? The taxpayer costs could be much lower this way, and the results might be much better.

Should there be federal support for CLEP test fees for veterans as there now is for active military personnel? Should test fees for all citizens be covered as part of the next tax reform act; an idea that might more than pay for itself by saving Title IV spending on traditional tuition support?

In all cases, it is important to be clear. We are not proposing Modern States as a superior alternative to traditional residential college. If someone can attend Stanford or any other great college physically for all four years, they should. It is better than anything a strictly online experience can offer.

However, such options are increasingly out of reach and unaffordable for many people. Modern States, or concepts like it, can be an “on-ramp” to traditional college, a way to get one or more courses done before matriculating to reduce total cost. Research has also shown that students who pass at least one CLEP exam are more likely to finish their degree once they start; probably, I assume, because they are self-motivated, hardworking people to begin with. It is for these reasons that the major public university systems we have dealt with to date in New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Maryland and elsewhere have been highly supportive of our effort. They already recognize the CLEP exam and want to make college affordable too.

Also for clarity, there are always many proposals to improve education, but Modern States is significant because it is real, and it is actually here, now. Real people are taking real courses for real credits, totally for free, today. Millions more students can do so tomorrow if they so choose, at – in the very worst case – no more cost than the College Board exam fee.

Looking forward, we believe the Modern States program is just at its first stage, and should continuously improve. We hope tutoring charities will join with us, mentoring charities, college guidance charities, universities, academics, political leaders of all parties, and allies of every type. Together, we can form an “ecosystem” to provide a high quality, affordable path to education for everyone.

The moral imperative is clear. Access to education is fundamental to a world that respects every individual and fundamental to the American dream. And yet education has been getting more and more expensive, with student debt now standing at $1.3 trillion. If Abe Lincoln came back to life, he should be able to obtain an education. Any hard-working, intelligent, motivated person should be able to obtain an education.

Modern States’ “Freshman Year for Free” is one highly practical, low-cost, real-world way toward this goal. We hope students will use it. We hope allies will join with us to build it. We hope that Modern States “Freshman Year for Free” may stand as a model for other innovators to follow.

Steve Klinsky is the founder and CEO of the Modern States Education Alliance, a 501(c)(3) philanthropy, and the founder and CEO of New Mountain Capital.

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