About five years ago, college presidents, software developers, and education reformers predicted that “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, would spur a revolution in higher education and a new era of flexible, affordable learning. The New York Times’s Education Life declared 2012 the “Year of the MOOC,” with a cover feature. The hype lasted for a few years, but the Education Life story hinted at the problem that would eventually stall the MOOC momentum. “What do you get for your effort,” asked author Laura Pappano, referring to online course-takers, “just the happy feeling of learning something?” MOOCs wouldn’t catch on, she and others worried, because students didn’t earn credit for their courses. Popular websites like edX and Coursera offered free or nearly free courses from top universities—but with no accreditor to certify the offerings.
As a result, MOOCs largely became the prerogative of highly educated professionals hoping to sharpen their skills. By 2014, 72 percent of registered edX users had bachelor’s degrees, with more than half of those holding postgraduate degrees as well. The handful of credit-granting programs—hosted on colleges’ own websites, as with the University of Texas’s “Extension” program—charge students full tuition to enroll. The MOOC model hasn’t caught on with the groups that it was supposed to help most: high schoolers, community-college students, and unskilled workers. Now, though, a new initiative is demonstrating how MOOCs can fulfill their potential.
MOOCs had receded from the headlines by 2014, their biggest purveyors settling into their roles as non-credit-granting, supplementary-education providers, when Steven Klinsky, founder and CEO of New York–based New Mountain Capital, decided to get involved. He was well qualified to take a shot at reform, having contributed to successful initiatives at every level of American education over two decades. In honor of his brother, who had died at 29, he created the Gary Klinsky Children’s Centers in Brooklyn in 1993 to provide free after-school programs to elementary school students; and in 1999, he founded the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem, New York’s first charter school. His new idea: create an accrediting body for online college courses—the Modern States Education Alliance, an echo of the Middle States Association, which authorizes brick-and-mortar universities in the Northeast. “I went down to Washington and met with the Department of Education folks, trying to convince them to change the accreditation system,” Klinsky recalls. But federal policymakers resisted a shakeup in the regional accreditation system, which focuses exclusively on two- and four-year, degree-granting colleges. “I think they always worried that there was going to be some negative somewhere,” Klinsky says.
For the millions of students taking free courses online, the road to college credits was unlikely to run through Washington. Klinsky soon shifted his efforts toward helping these students gain credit through existing channels. “The lightbulb went on,” he remembers, when he noticed that “there are already ways to get credit through the College Board exam process.” Thus arrived the Freshman Year for Free program. The Modern States website would offer video courses structured to match the content and skill level of these credit-granting exams.
The most widely taken College Board exams are the Advanced Placement tests, offered to high school students annually. For online-course students, however, the lesser-known College Level Examination Program tests are much more accessible—available on demand at more than 1,800 examination centers. Klinsky and his partners began developing courses tailored to both AP and CLEP. He personally endowed a fund for the Freshman Year for Free program that would reimburse the $85 exam fees of the first 10,000 test-takers, making the path to credit free from start to finish. The College Board exams cover a full range of introductory-level topics; some persevering Modern States users will be able to complete an entire first year of college.
The Modern States platform offers 32 CLEP courses—one for every subject on offer from the College Board—along with 16 multipart AP courses. Subjects range from “Information Systems” and “Principles of Marketing” to “Analyzing and Interpreting Literature.” Each course comes with a downloadable “textbook,” along with interactive web exercises that allow students to practice-test their knowledge as they move through each module. Finally, the quizzes and tests use sample questions—designed, in many cases, with input from the College Board—that closely match those of the credit-granting exams.
Combining several Modern States courses doesn’t approximate the full experience of brick-and-mortar education, of course, as Klinsky acknowledges. “We want to be an on-ramp into the traditional system,” he tells me, explaining how the platform’s courses could help, say, a cash-strapped college student finish a suspended degree or a full-time worker shave time off her course of study. It’s tempting to cast Modern States as a “disruptive” education start-up, with a mission to shake up the collegiate world—its sleek course-catalog design, inspired by Netflix, certainly gives that impression. But Klinsky has built his platform prudently, forging partnerships with institutional players and focusing on making content available to people who lack access, rather than attempting to transform the entire system.
This new pathway to college credit has arrived right on time. Over the past two years, the movement for free college has gained steam, with New York becoming the latest of four states to begin covering the cost of public-university tuition for its residents. Still, taxpayers are footing the bill for this state-funded version of “free” college—to the tune of $163 million in the first year alone. Rather than fighting to reduce higher-ed costs, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other free-college advocates have thrown in the towel, pumping more public money into colleges in a manner certain to drive tuition costs even higher. With Modern States, Klinsky is resuming the struggle to cut a lower-cost path to quality education.
After an extended beta period, the Freshman Year for Free project formally launched in summer 2017 and won favorable reviews from Marketwired and the Wall Street Journal. More than 30,000 students have registered, and so far, about 70 percent of CLEP course-takers have passed their exams.
Modern States’ free path to credit has been a boon for many students. A recent immigrant from Cameroon, 21-year-old Freeman Talla, an electrical-engineering student at Kennesaw State University in Marietta, Georgia, wants to be an energy entrepreneur. To get there, he’s pursuing both an engineering master’s and an MBA, and he hopes to blaze through a heavy course load and save money in the process. Though he mastered chemistry in high school—even substitute-teaching his peers when their instructor was absent—Talla maxed out his credits for the term and couldn’t enroll in a required chemistry course. His advisor referred him to Modern States’ chemistry CLEP course. Using the video lectures as a refresher before taking the exam, Talla moved one step closer to the first of what he hopes will be many degrees—and he’s no poorer financially for his efforts.
The course model is particularly advantageous for nontraditional students. Lester Felton, 32, worked as an officer in the New Jersey Department of Corrections until 2016, when, looking to change careers, he began pursuing an associate’s degree. Now enrolled at Rowan College in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, Felton completed a Modern States course on Western civilization, studying during breaks between shifts as a shopping-center security guard. Moving on to introductory French and other courses, Felton is considering a career as a teacher with the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools, which will let him earn a master’s in education while working—a leap that he might not have taken without the savings that free courses have provided.
Modern States’ website offers more than 30 similar testimonials from high schoolers, community-college students, parents, and professionals in mid-career. Klinsky often acknowledges the platform’s first CLEP graduate—William Rush, a home-schooler from Oregon with plans to skip college and become an electrician—as well as a mother of a chronically ill son who has completed several courses during hours spent in the hospital waiting room. Nontraditional students—like Wanda Cruz, a Philadelphia teacher who sharpened her skills with a pair of Spanish courses, and Connor Myers, a high school senior amassing enough credits to “go into college as a sophomore”—are the norm rather than exceptions among Modern States users.
Careful course design and successful execution have been keys to the platform’s early success. Klinsky began developing the courses in 2015. Looking to collaborate with edX on the production of AP video courses and make use of its network of contacts with universities and professors, he made a $1 million donation to the MOOC provider. For the production of the CLEP courses, Klinsky and Modern States executive director David Vise hired IBL Studios, a New York–based contractor that specializes in educational video. Full-time professors helped identify top teachers from around the country to recruit for each course, and the team maintained strict standards as they reviewed hundreds of applications. “We told some professors they were not up to the job because they were extremely boring—we didn’t think they could do a good job for the students,” IBL founder and CEO Miguel Amigot says. Professors who made the cut hailed from Columbia University, MIT, Purdue, the University of Texas, and other notable campuses. Each course was then produced from scratch at one of IBL’s two studios, located in New York and nearby Union City, New Jersey. The group’s educational consultants—a mathematician, a designer, an aerospace engineer, and others—work with the professors to create curricula in step with the CLEP exam topics. The lectures are shot over the course of three nine-hour workdays, using what Amigot calls a “live production” technique. “We are able to film the professors presenting on their iPads or writing on the glass in a way that perfectly matches the information slides of the students,” he notes, contrasting the style with other video courses in which slide shows are overdubbed.
Klinsky points to three simple goals for the future. The first is that Modern States will continue to develop institutional alliances with colleges that accept CLEP credits. “If you look at the Texas state website, they have a whole page for us in there,” he says, explaining how the university advertises Modern States to prospective students as a potential fast track for their transfer applications. For students already attending four-year colleges, a referral to the site could mean a chance at leaping ahead, as Freeman Talla has done. The second goal is expanding the circle of donors to help cover the cost of students’ exam fees. Today, most reimbursement comes from Klinsky’s personal donations, but in autumn 2017, a Tennessee charity agreed to pay fees for local rural residents. Klinsky hopes that other regional groups will follow suit: “You could have veterans’ groups saying we’ll help the veterans; you could have the local Kiwanis Club pay for people in their town.”
The third goal, more important than partnerships and funding, by Klinsky’s reckoning, is the reputation that Modern States will develop as users spread the word. The metaphor that he prefers is that of the public library: an essential resource, free and open to all, to which one can be directed by a helpful neighbor. The library concept also explains why Klinsky doesn’t worry about the attrition rate in Modern States courses. “Browsing for free—where you take a book off the shelf, read a page, and put it back down—is not the problem,” he insists, calling attention to the difference between users of his site and students at traditional colleges, where the failure to complete one’s course of study can result in a lifetime of debt. The risk is low, but the reward for persisting through a Modern States course can be as great as students choose to make it. “Ultimately, it’s on you,” says one, Lester Felton of New Jersey—grateful to have received an opportunity, and proud to have made the most of it.
A professor connects with her online students via a high-tech light board. (PHOTO COURTESY OF MODERN STATES EDUCATION ALLIANCE)