MOOCs: What's a Great College Class Worth When It's Free?

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Take Ivy League classes while snuggled cozily in bed ... for free? Sign me up! Thanks to the growing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses, many elite institutions worldwide are offering some of their popular classes gratis. There is a hitch, however, to getting the knowledge without paying the college: Few of these MOOCs actual qualify you for college credit.

Virtual Ivy Leaguer

I actually did sign up for a MOOC through, which offers 600 courses in several languages from universities worldwide. Aggregator sites like list courses from Udacity, EdX (the Harvard-MIT partnership), NovoED, Coursera and more. Thanks to the European Credit Transfer System, some European colleges offer credit for MOOCs through Most U.S. institutions offer some kind of verified certificate.

For the last two months, I've been studying at Yale online with noted economist Robert Schiller. There were online office hours, graded quizzes, peer-reviewed papers, a final exam and notable guest speakers like billionaire investor Carl Icahn. If I wanted it, a verified certificate of study was $50. Online forums took the place of study groups.

My Financial Markets course consisted of the professor's in-class lectures and guest speakers on video. It took 20 to 30 hours -- whenever I wanted -- with quizzes and papers on a grading deadline. Had I taken it for a certificate, I would have barely squeaked by with a "Gentleman's C."

It was almost as hard as the on-campus Yale course. Schiller was engaging, if not endearing, always rubbing chalk dust into his Brooks Brothers jackets and cheerfully joking about notable figures in the field who hailed from rivals Harvard or Princeton, with entertaining anecdotes about the behavioral economics of casino gambling or the Dutch tulip craze.

For those who just want to learn, it is priceless. For those who need to brush up for their career, a verified certificate is worth the $50. For students who want to delve deeper into a subject or use a course as a study aid, MOOCs can help. For high school students, there are advanced placement prep courses. But only a third of Coursera offerings offer a certificate. For many professionals, MOOCs may not count as continuing education. And you won't get a degree.

What Do You Have to Lose?

The courses are also a low-risk way to gauge aptitude and interest in a subject. Would you want to be a geologist -- one of the "dirt people," as Dr. Sheldon Cooper of "The Big Bang Theory" says? Or is physics more your cup of tea?

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%It is only a matter of time before more U.S. colleges decide to grant college credit for MOOCs, especially considering the ever-rising rumble about the return on investment issues surrounding a college degree. (Rising tuitions vs. stagnant wages -- something has to give.) There is a groundswell of support from state governments, the American Council for Education, Google (GOOG) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's MOOC Research Initiative.

Subjects vary widely. The University of Edinburgh offers Warhol, and Brown has Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets. STEM courses are widely available. Stanford courses have featured Google alums and inventors. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a MOOC astronomy course with access to robotic telescopes.

Carnegie Mellon brags of its freemium model, "No instructors, no credits, no charge." It doesn't offer certificates. The Georgia Institute of Technology offers credit for some courses. There's even an app on iTunes.

I considered my course invaluable, but as with so many things, the value of a MOOC depends on what you put into it. The completion rate for most MOOCs is 10 percent or less, despite the chance to study at the world's best universities with the world's best teachers for free. I enjoyed, but was humbled by the material, and learned much more than expected.

Still, what have you got to lose? No one can ever take away what you learn.

11 Money Moves to Make Before You Turn 40
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MOOCs: What's a Great College Class Worth When It's Free?
Creating an emergency savings fund can prevent you from relying on a credit card and going into debt when unexpected costs strike, says "Today" show financial editor Jean Chatzky. "You've got to watch it with the debt," she warns, adding that half of Americans lack emergency funds. "Lack of savings and debt go hand in hand ... an emergency cushion is insurance against debt," she says.
"Insurance is always that thing that we don't think about that we should," Chatzky says. Rental insurance and disability insurance both tend to be "chronically under-bought," but taking out policies can end up saving you from financial catastrophe, she adds. She recommends looking into policies offered through work because they can be more affordable.
Automating your retirement savings -- having money taken out of your paycheck and put into a tax-advantaged retirement account -- makes it easier to save without thinking too much about it, Chatzky says. Since many companies' automatic opt-in programs start at 3 percent of income, you might need to scale it up yourself, and Chatzky says if you do it in 2 percent increments, you might not even notice the difference.
While some people prefer to manage their money on their own, others benefit from a professional's help. "It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the competing expenses," says Suzanna de Baca, vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial (AMP). "Sitting down with a financial adviser can help you understand where your expenses are and what is discretionary versus essential, and then you can create the right kind of budgeting and savings plan for you."
Kathleen Grace, a certified financial planner and author of "Prince Not So Charming," says maintaining excellent credit is important as you progress through your 30s, particularly because your credit report can play a big role when it comes to determining how much you will pay to borrow money for big expenses like a mortgage. She suggests reviewing your credit report once a year to check for errors and paying off your credit card balance in full each month.
Learning the ins and outs of income taxes, including any tax deductions and credits that might apply to you, can help you save a few hundred, or even a few thousand, dollars each year, says certified financial planner Nancy L. Anderson. Those amounts can add up over a lifetime, she adds.
This move isn't right for everyone, but it is a smart investment for many 30-somethings, says Bart Astor, author of "AARP Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life." Despite the flux in the real estate market, "it's still a good idea for a young person or family. It brings stability," he says. And over time, the investment should grow.
Many companies provide an additional 30 percent of pay in terms of employee benefits, Anderson says. Those benefits include retirement, tuition reimbursement, pretax transportation benefits, health savings accounts, employee assistance programs, wellness programs, financial planning and more. Since your company is already paying for those benefits, you can take advantage of them to help boost your own wealth.
"The single most important financial move you can make in your 30s if you have minor children is to put the time, effort and money necessary into drafting solid estate planning documents," says Tim Maurer, director of personal finance for the BAM Alliance of independent advisers. They should be written by an attorney who specializes in estate planning and include advance directives, a durable power of attorney and most importantly, a will.
You don't need to become a financial professional, but knowing your way around the stock market will help you make the right decisions for your own long-term savings and investments. Money and retirement expert Kerry Hannon recommends, by the National Endowment for Financial Education, for free guides on stocks, bonds and mutual funds. She also suggests taking a personal finance course at a local community college.
This decade is also the time to make slow and steady progress toward paying off any remaining student loan debts, as well as unloading any expensive credit card and other types of debt. Hannon even opted to cash in her 401(k) plan at age 30 to help pay off her credit card debt, which isn't necessarily the right choice for everyone. Still, becoming debt-free by age 40 is definitely something to celebrate.
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