Building University Pathways for All

The college admissions season — when 18-year-olds choose where they will spend the next four years. For many, the classic college experience includes living on campus, pulling all-nighters at the university library, and partying with friends, all while growing into adulthood.

But more than half of those attending undergraduate institutions in the United States are not 18–22-year-olds, and they do not necessarily wish to live on campus. They are working parents, military personnel returning from active duty, mid-career workers seeking a new knowledge base, foreign students seeking a U.S. educational degree, and others. And even many working-class 18-year-olds cannot afford to attend a residential university for four years.

For these non-traditional students, we need alternative on-ramps to the transformative knowledge and critical thinking skills that an undergraduate education provides. That is why I was so excited to sign on to teach with Modern States Education Alliance, a philanthropy offering “Freshman Year for Free”, a set of online courses that prepare students to pass tests in the College Level Examination Program (CLEP; offered by the College Board). A passing score on CLEP tests can enable learners to earn traditional academic credits at more than 2,900 colleges and universities.

Although CLEP tests have been around for 50 years, there are very few widely available ways to prepare for them, and certainly no comprehensive set of free courses. The Modern States roster fills that need by offering 32 online courses taught by leading university professors. Significantly, these courses are all offered completely free. As a result, students can earn up to a full year’s worth of credit for free, reducing the cost of a traditional four-year college degree by 25 percent.

“Freshman Year for Free” is one great example of how online education can be a vehicle for high-quality innovative educational models that reach an underserved population. During my three years as Vice Provost for Online Education and Academic Innovation at The George Washington University, I saw firsthand how effective online education can be. Of course, it doesn’t duplicate the on-campus experience. But many students either don’t want or can’t afford that experience. And if online education is done well, through outstanding teaching and creative content development, it can often be more effective than the old-fashioned campus lecture hall.

Moreover, the key point is that it’s not either/or. Undergraduate education comes in all sorts of varieties, and there are many different types of students with many different needs. Universities and other education providers must innovate and find new ways to connect to today’s students. By providing multiple pathways to a university education, we will serve both the 18–22 year-old four-year residential student and a broader cross-section of the world’s population. Such broader access to a university education would be truly transformative, both for the individual students and for society as a whole.

Paul Schiff Berman is Walter S. Cox Professor of Law at The George Washington University, where he also served as Vice Provost for Online Education and Academic Innovation from 2012–15. Professor Berman teaches the Introduction to Business Law course on