College for free in 10 years?

Will college be free in 10 years? Time looks at a future in which a four-year residential college is a luxury item for the few, while most learners pursue higher education online.

As learning goes online, most universities “will be in the accreditation business,” predicts author and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa.

(Universities) will monitor and sanction coursework; teachers will become mentors and guides, not deliver lectures and administer tests. This model has the potential to dramatically cut the cost of an education and virtually eliminate the need to borrow for one, he says.

Private companies are getting into skills assessment, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. “The big enchilada of potential disruptions to higher education is if employers go outside of the academy to size up job seekers.”

Smarterer, a Boston-based start-up “offers 800 free online tests for people to prove their chops in areas ranging from C++ programming to speaking English for business or understanding Gothic architecture.”

Jennifer Fremont-Smith, Smarterer’s CEO, describes the company as a “third-party, super powerful assessment and credentialing tool.” Its goal is not to replace the college degree, which Fremont-Smith acknowledges is currently the gold standard of credentials, but to give employers an additional way to sort through job applicants.

More than 400 employers have used the service to help evaluate job candidates’ skills, she says.

Rival companies like and Degreed attempt to assess skills and learning. And the ACT’s National Career Readiness Certificate measures employability with tests on applied mathematics, locating information and reading for information. The certificate is geared for entry-level jobs, even for applicants who lack a college credential.

On the other side of the spectrum, Bloomberg in 2010 introduced an assessment aimed at students who want to bulk up their C.V.s to land jobs in finance. The test covers 11 fairly narrow categories, like investment banking and analyzing financial statements.

Mozilla’s Open Badges project lets people “issue, earn or display badges that display their earners’ skills or achievements,” writes Fain. But digital badges aren’t backed by independent testing, so they’re likely to lack credibility.

About Joanne


  1. Crimson Wife says:

    My DH has advised several of his younger colleagues to not bother pursuing a MBA but rather to work towards the Chartered Financial Analyst designation. Most positions specify MBA or CFA and he said that he learned a lot more relevant information from his CFA preparation than from his MBA coursework. And while the CFA prep materials and exams weren’t cheap, the total was a fraction of the cost of his MBA including the “opportunity cost” of 2 years out of the paid workforce.

    DH would not have been able to enter the financial services industry or register for the CFA exams without first having done the MBA because he was a career changer (served 5 years as an Army officer). But for those already working in the industry, he strongly encourages the CFA over a MBA.

    • I have 3 sons working in various parts of the financial industry, two with MBAs from top-5 programs, and all have their CFAs. Even with an MBA, the CFA esd expected.

  2. If credentials certify knowledge and if tests measure knowledge, all that stands between a portable credential that certifies a PhD in Microbiology or a BS in Poli-Sci is reliable ID. Testing centers will attach fingerprints, photo ID, iris metrics and perhaps even DNA samples to the credentials that they issue.

  3. This will probably happen… And it will probably put some politicians’ lives in danger when it does (this is why it hasn’t happened already, methinks). This will cause some very wealthy, powerful people to lose a LOT of money – though it will also save the country at the same time.