You really can take college courses online for free. However, proving you finished a particular online college class successfully is not free.
To demonstrate to an employer or other interested party that you passed a free online college course through Coursera or EdX, you'll need to pay a fee to receive an optional completion certificate.
It's not a diploma, exactly, although it does mean the student "graduated" from that standalone course.
The certificate lists the student's name, the name of the course, the university or other educational organization who offered the class, and related details.
Purchasing a certificate is not required. You can still take the free online college courses without one.
Note: For information about taking college classes online for free, see my Free Online College Courses: How to Get Started page.
So if you don't care about proof, or don't need to prove to anyone that you passed one or more free online college courses, keep your credit card in your wallet. You'll still have access to outstanding college-level instruction online.
Popular online college course hubs Coursera and EdX both charge students a fee to receive a certificate of course completion. Coursera and EdX call these electronic documents "Verified Certificates".
While it would be great to receive proof of class completion for free, I think it makes sense for these companies to charge students for the certificate. The fee-for-verification allows Coursera and EdX to generate revenue to support their operations.
This freemium model allows those who can afford to pay, or who really need the proof of completion, to receive that. While those who just want to learn and don't care about the piece of paper don't have to pay.
Coursera's charge for a verified certificate is a flat $49 per college course. EdX charges $25 for a completion certificate the last time I checked.
Let me repeat. You can still take hundreds of free online college classes and not pay anything!
This is known as "auditing" a course. You still get the college-level instruction and the knowledge.
Also, you might want to purchase the verified certificate for some courses you take and not others. It depends on your goals and why you might need proof of completion (e.g., for continuing education with your employer).
Considering that EdX and Coursera provide access to hundreds of university-level online college courses for free, open to anyone, it's logical for these hubs to collect income at some point so they can pay for their operations and stay in business.
There has lately been some confusion about whether class-completion certificates are free or not, especially with regard to Coursera.
In the past, Coursera offered a free, non-official Statement of Accomplishment certificate to the student with each college course they finished. Alternatively, the student could purchase an optional paid official Verified Certificate.
As of November 2014, Coursera's free Statement of Accomplishment certificates are phasing out.
Only the paid Verified Certificate is available going forward. A paid certificate is the only kind offered on EdX.
For most of the free college courses, you don't need to purchase the verified certificate up front. On Coursera, for example, you have up until the last week of the course to decide whether to buy the verified certificate.
That means as a student, you can begin a class without obligation. Decide after completing some of the course work whether you think it's worth purchase the verified certificate.
The first free online course I took on Coursera was a class called "Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects" offered by the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). I waited until the second week of the course to pay for a verified certificate.
By that point, I had a grasp of the tremendous value of the class and was happy to do it.
One exception is the capstone project for the Specialization course tracks on Coursera. Only those who have paid the verified certificate fee can access the final capstone project and complete the specialization.
If you don't want to pay for a certificate, there is an easy and free way to show you have completed the free online university course. Take a screen shot or print out the course timeline from your Coursera or EdX account once you finish the class.
Note that some online courses do not offer a certificate for completing the class. You can sort by this criteria in the Coursera class catalog by toggling the Verified Certificates checkbox on the catalog search page.
Situations in which it might be smart to purchase a verified certificate:
if proof of completing the class is required by your boss;
for continuing education during a job search;
for college or graduate school prep, if you intend to include the course on your admissions application.
Additionally, many students purchase a verified certificate for the extra motivation. Knowing you've invested in the cost of a certificate may encourage you to work a bit harder to push through and complete a difficult online college course!
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