What to Expect From Free Online Classes

You get a certificate from a top college, but not the credits.

A number of free online course offerings, some from big-name universities, are giving traditional schools a run for the money. You may even get a certificate that proves mastery of the material. But don't expect such a certificate to carry much weight in the job market, where actual credits are still the only currency that counts.

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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently expanded a decade-long practice of opening its coursework to the public by announcing a new online learning initiative dubbed MITx. The first free class, Circuits and Electronics (it is MIT), debuted in March, taught by an MIT professor. Virtual learners are able to interact with the teacher and with each other. Students are graded and earn a certificate from MITx if they demonstrate mastery of the content (but will not earn MIT credit).

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Other free online programs offer courses and degrees aimed at providing a university-level education without the price tag of a brick-and-mortar institution. Saylor.org compiles open coursework from top-notch universities into more than 200 classes and awards certificates upon completion. University of the People offers degrees in business administration and computer science.

But without accreditation from one of the nationally recognized agencies, free online education -- even classes with the allure of the MIT brand -- means little in the job market. "In a nutshell, hiring professionals don't care about them," says Kim Lamoureux, a senior director at human resources research firm Bersin & Associates. Employers worry about verifying the content and learning experience of unaccredited courses.

As online learning becomes more popular -- especially as employers partner with online educators to save on costs for tuition reimbursement -- hiring managers may become more accepting of the merits of free education. For now, though, consider the education its own reward.

John Miley
Senior Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter

John Miley is a Senior Associate Editor at The Kiplinger Letter. He mainly covers technology, telecom and education, but will jump on other important business topics as needed. In his role, he provides timely forecasts about emerging technologies, business trends and government regulations. He also edits stories for the weekly publication and has written and edited e-mail newsletters.

He joined Kiplinger in August 2010 as a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine, where he wrote stories, fact-checked articles and researched investing data. After two years at the magazine, he moved to the Letter, where he has been for the last decade. He holds a BA from Bates College and a master’s degree in magazine journalism from Northwestern University, where he specialized in business reporting. An avid runner and a former decathlete, he has written about fitness and competed in triathlons.