Looking for a way to get a college education at little or no cost
? So is the current administration!
Last year, President Obama created a plan for community colleges that included a $500 million budget to create free online courses that could be tailored to the specific needs of students. According to Inside Higher Ed
, the proposal was part of a larger plan to beef up community college services and access, preparing more Americans for practical job opportunities in the current workforce.
In addition to helping high schools come up with low-cost curriculum, the original proposal coming out of the White House offered federal funding to help community colleges develop courses that students could take absolutely free. The $500 million originally offered would be used to both create curriculum and ways to assess student performance in the courses. The efforts would be coordinated under a "National Skills College."
Many community colleges supported the efforts, even as they were making the move to put more and more courses online
. An online curriculum makes sense to many community college students who are trying to structure their education around a professional job and family responsibilities. In light of the fact that many community college students have limited resources to spend on education, the free courses make even more sense on this level. Some college officials are even hopeful that free online courses would inspire other organizations to set up laptop programs to make computers available to low-income students.
Unfortunately, the Obama plan has yet to transpire. Despite widespread support for the proposal, the $500 million earmarked for free online courses was dropped from the recently approved healthcare and student aid bill, as reported by USA Today
However, all is not lost on the free classes’ front after all. Another institution, which has been providing free online courses for years, is slowly but surely growing in terms of courses offered and its membership base.
The National Repository of Online Courses
One organization that was hoping for a piece of the pie in Obama's latest proposal was the National Repository of Online Courses (NROC). This institution has been creating free online courses through its e-learning portal, HippoCampus, since long before President Obama drafted his proposal. The organization is slowly growing, both in the number of courses provided and the number of members it boasts in its base.
How the NROC Operates
This non-profit program is supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, according to the NROC website
. Originally, NROC purchased courses from the University of California
's vault of preparatory courses. However, according to NROC's director, Gary Lopez, nearly one-third of all students and institutions using NROC's free resources today are community and technical colleges. With the help of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the organization was able to begin designing its own coursework that is better customized to the individual needs of its members.
The courses are developed by representatives of leading educational institutions across the country. Each online class is carefully assessed for instructional value and presentational impact. The courses are flexible enough to be used in many generalized curriculums and can also be customized to the individual needs of the college or student.
HippoCampus is the online portal for distribution of NROC's materials. According to the HippoCampus
website, this project, like NROC, is a project of the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education. The website provides curriculum for both the college and high school level, with a broad range of course topics to choose from.
Eliminates the Need for Textbooks
Karen Kaemmerling, a history instructor for Colorado Community Colleges Online and blog writer for NROC, told USA Today that the NROC's move to more sophisticated teaching tools may put traditional publishers in a bind. She adds that NROC's material is much more usable to students, and in addition to the free price tag, the intuitiveness makes these resources much more attractive than traditional textbooks. Currently, NROC is working hard to develop a developmental math sequence, which would make even more courses available without the need for textbooks
How Free is Free?
While students have access to NROC materials at absolutely no charge, the same is not true for institutions. Many have to pay a membership fee to gain access to the portal, which ranges from $3,000 to $50,000 per year. The lower end of the fee scale typically applies to individual institutions, while the higher cost mostly applies to state education systems. In some cases, institutions pass this cost along to students by charging a nominal tuition fee for courses obtained through NROC membership.
College used to be considered the "impossible dream" for many low-income students and adults looking for additional work training. However, thanks to proposals from President Obama (which still may come to pass sometime in the future) and organizations like NROC, students can get the education they need at a price they can afford.