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Free Freshman Year? Texas State To Try It Out

The Texas State University System is experimenting with massive open online courses to allow students to arrive on campus with a full year of credit at minimal cost.

Chelsea Stewart listens to a lecture in the College of Health Professions at Texas State University.

The Texas State University System has an idea for future students busy with families and jobs: Don't even show up on campus freshman year.

Starting next fall, the system plans to encourage nontraditional students to take free massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, before arriving on campus. If they take 10 courses and pass tests for college credit, students could show up at school with a year's work complete before paying a single tuition bill.  

The courses will be run by the New York-based nonprofit the Modern States Education Alliance through a program called Freshman Year for Free. The group plans to launch a free online portal providing access to about three dozen free online courses next fall. Students who complete the courses will be eligible to take Advanced Placement or College-Level Examination Program tests to collect credit. 

The students would only have to pay for the tests, costing about $90 per class. 

The program will be available to all students planning to attend schools that accept AP or CLEP test scores, including all public schools in Texas. But Texas State is the first system in the state that has committed to actively promote the program. 

"We want as many tools for students as we can give," said Texas State University System Chancellor Brian McCall. "We thought this was a particularly good one for older, busy, driven and disciplined students."

The Texas State System, which includes Texas State, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Sul Ross State universities, has a large number of nontraditional students. More than 70 percent of the system's students also work. Older students with kids and full-time jobs might benefit the most, McCall said, since they may not have time to take four years out of their lives to attend school. 

David Vise, a senior advisor for Modern States, said working students are one group targeted by the program. Students who attend high schools that don't offer many AP courses may also benefit. Enlisted members of the military can work toward credit while deployed. And students who left school a few credits short of graduating might find it a convenient road back, he said. 

The goal, Vise said, is to make higher education more affordable and accessible. "We believe it will be used in a variety of ways by lots of different people for different reasons," Vise said. 

Modern States plans to launch more than 30 classes in fall 2016 ranging from U.S. history to astronomy hosted by edX, a MOOC platform developed by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Teachers from the University of Texas at Austin, Rice, Georgetown and Harvard universities have already signed up. 

Students can take as few — or as many — of the courses as they'd like. 

Earlier this decade, free online courses were a trendy tool in higher education. But lately, they've fallen a bit out of style. Many courses have very low completion rates — students often sign up for the free classes and then don't follow through. And there have been concerns raised about cheating. Until now, there hasn't been a way to receive college credit. 

But McCall said he isn't worried. Since courses are free, the cost of failing to finish one is much smaller than it would be for students dropping a class. And someone who cheated in an online class would still have to pass the highly moderated AP or CLEP test, he said. 

The Texas State System hasn't set many expectations for the program. McCall said he has no idea how many will sign up or actually receive credit. But he said he's thrilled to give students the opportunity. 

"We believe this will require more discipline, more focus, more resolve to get the desired result," McCall said. 

The Texas State System is among 10 universities or university systems around the country that have signed on to promote the project to their students. As more schools buy-in, opportunities for an inexpensive education will grow, Vise said. 

"We feel that no one should be shut out of education after high school because cost or lack of access," he said. 

Disclosure: Texas State University, Sam Houston University and The University of Texas at Austin are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. Rice University was a corporate sponsor in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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