You really can take college courses online for free. However, proving you finished a course successfully is not free.
To demonstrate to an employer or other interested party that you passed the college course, you'll need to pay a fee to receive an optional completion certificate.
The certificate lists your name, the course name, the university or other educational organization who offered the course, and other related details.
Purchasing a certificate is not required. You can still take the free college courses without one.
So if you don't care about proof, or don't need it, 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 completion for free, I think it makes sense for these companies to charge 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 the courses 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 certificates are free or not, especially with regard to Coursera.
In the past, Coursera offered a free, non-official Statement of Accomplishment certificate with each college course. 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 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 you can begin a course without obligation. Decide after completing some of the course work whether you think it's worth purchase the verified certificate.
With the first course I took on Coursera, 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 course 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 course. Take a screen shot or print out the course timeline from your account once you finish the class.
Note that some courses do not offer either a free or paid 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 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 course!
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