Earning College Credit for Free

Earning College Credit for Free

A reform-minded philanthropist has partnered with leading universities to create a top-notch library of online college courses. Students who excel can earn academic credits--and the equivalent of their full freshman year for free.

Knowledge is priceless. College? That comes with a price tag — one that’s gotten way too steep for many people to afford.

Access to education is fundamental to a world that respects every individual. However, tuition and fees at four-year public colleges in America jumped 71 percent over the last decade, and total student debt now exceeds $1.3 trillion.

As a lifelong education reformer, I recently turned my attention to the pressing issues of college affordability and access. My philanthropy, Modern States Education Alliance, is dedicated to making a college degree more affordable and attainable for everyone.

Access to education was always fundamental to my own family. My dad was the first ever in our line to go to college, and finished law school as well. My mother trained as a school teacher. When I was a kindergartner coming home from school, my oldest brother Gary (a seventh grader) would give me his own “school after school,” complete with workbooks and reading circles.

Gary’s help was a huge positive influence on my own life, and after he died at the age of 29 from a genetic disease, I founded the Gary Klinsky Children’s Centers (GKCC) in his memory. The GKCC program started in 1993 at public elementary schools in East New York, Brooklyn, when it was one of New York’s lowest-income, highest-crime neighborhoods. The program increased the teaching time by nearly 50 percent every school day in a fun, after school “clubhouse” way. The GKCC effort has grown over time, to more schools and to 12 months a year, and it has helped thousands of kids with a mix of public and private funding. After starting the GKCC, I went on to start other schools and to work on education policy.

Modern States works like a global digital public library of great college courses. It aims to make a college degree more affordable and attainable for everyone.

Since 2012, I have had a particular focus on higher education. Most recently, Modern States has launched “Freshman Year For Free.” The program, created in partnership with top professors, is designed for rising high school students, college students, and adult learners seeking to further their education.

In short, Modern States works like a global digital public library of great college courses. If you visit ModernStates.org, you will find state-of-the-art, totally tuition-free online courses in over 40 major freshman subjects, along with free online textbooks and practice questions. Most uniquely, the courses lead to actual academic credits at more than 2,900 respected colleges and universities, such as Purdue, Penn State, Morehouse, the University of Wisconsin and many others.

Professor Amy Nielsen of Washington State University connects with her Modern States students through lectures, presentation slides and this high-tech light board. Photo credit: Mason Levinson

Before Modern States, about five million students per year were already taking college courses online for credit, but almost always at the same high price as ‘in-person’ courses. There have been some free online college courses, but few of them led to traditional academic credit. Modern States is important because we have bridged that gap for the first time: great free online college courses, available to anyone, that do lead to real college credits.

Beginning in 2014, we started to create these courses by recruiting professors, and producing each online course the way a movie studio would produce a movie. The professors are some of the best anywhere. For example, Paul Schiff Berman, legal scholar and former dean of George Washington University Law School, teaches “Introductory Business Law,” while Professor Amy Nielsen of Washington State University sparks her students’ interest in Chemistry.

Each Modern States course has been specifically designed to teach the material and subjects that are tested on two of the College Board’s signature exams: The AP (Advanced Placement) and CLEP (College Level Examination Program) exams. Now, anyone with internet access can go to ModernStates.org, and download a course for free like choosing a movie from Netflix. The student watches the lectures on their own time, as often as they want, with free textbooks online and practice questions from the College Board. When they feel ready, they can take the College Board’s CLEP exam in, say, chemistry. If they score well on the exam and then enroll (for example) in Purdue, Purdue will give the student time and credit for having completed freshman chemistry, saving the student both time and money. Each college already lays out its AP and CLEP policies in its admissions catalog, and decides what scores you need for credit.

A student can take one course at ModernStates.org or many courses. Eight courses generally equate to one full year of traditional college credit, all at no tuition cost, fees, textbook costs or taxpayer costs.

Modern States always gives our courses away for free, while the College Board typically charges $85 for every CLEP exam. However, as part of our philanthropic commitment, we are also paying for the first 10,000 CLEP exams our students take. We are actively recruiting additional donors to help students beyond this 10,000 level. Even without our subsidy, however, the $85 fee per course is far, far cheaper than the cost of a traditional college course.

Importantly, ModernStates.org is not pie in the sky. It actually exists today, and more than 50,000 students of all ages and nationalities have already registered. We have already paid exam fees for hundreds of students who have successfully passed the CLEPs.

Credit: Modern States Education Alliance

The Modern States students come from a wide range of backgrounds, with some inspiring personal stories.

William Rush, a 17-year-old homeschooler in Vancouver, Washington, was the first student to ever take a Modern States course and pass the CLEP exam. William passed the Chemistry course, and now has completed seven more courses and CLEP exams in less than a year, for the equivalent of one full-year of college, totally free.

Daniel Goodwin was one course away from graduating from his university when he ran out of money and couldn’t finish. He came to ModernStates.org and has now earned his degree.

Holly Sorell is a young mother whose five year old son needs medical treatment at the National Institutes of Health. She was already enrolled in college at full tuition, but has now started to take ModernStates.org courses on her iPhone as she waits in the NIH waiting room each day. She has completed three courses and exams already, saving herself thousands of dollars and months of time. Her goal is to become a nurse and help other parents with children like her own in the health system.

Chandies Williamson is a South Dakota resident in his late 40s, who is utilizing Modern States to complete an associate’s degree and earn a job promotion at work. “Because of Modern States”, said Williamson, “I have 18 credits, and at $350 per credit, I’ve saved just under $7,000 plus the cost of the tests and textbooks.”

Traditional college systems, like Texas State and the State University of New York, have been highly supportive of our efforts because they too want to make college more affordable. We have also formed alliances with charitable and civic groups like the Ayers Foundation, the Natural Rural Education Association, and a local chapter of the NAACP. And we’ve teamed up with high schools and school districts that want to use our materials to help their existing students graduate with college credits in hand.

While we’re still learning ways to refine the impact of our program, early signs are really encouraging. The passing rate on CLEP exams for Modern States students has exceeded 80 percent so far, and above the national average. Research has also shown that students who pass a CLEP exam have a higher graduation rate from college overall. We’re proud to be making progress toward the goal of ensuring a college education for all, and we expect many, many more great success stories and alliances as time goes on.


Steven B. Klinsky is founder and CEO of Modern States Education Alliance. Professionally, Klinsky is founder and CEO of New Mountain Capital, a growth-oriented private equity firm.