A “free trial offer” may sound like something you get on a magazine subscription and not a college degree program. But across the spectrum from small private colleges to large for-profit universities, schools – are having to work harder to attract students these days. Many are also feeling pressure from the media and the government to boost graduation rates for those who do sign up. As a result, don’t be surprised if you see more and more colleges offering to let you to take a “free test drive” of some courses, to make sure you’re truly ready to enroll.
A few schools have already put free trial offers in place:
- Kaplan University: Has been offering the “Kaplan Commitment” program since 2010, which allows new students to “experience classes before you pay for them.” The program lets you to take courses for five weeks at no charge. If you become a full time student, credits from those courses can count toward your degree. At the end of week 5 you reach a “checkpoint” where you must tell the school officially if you wish to continue or drop out. If you don’t carry on, you lose only the application fee (about $100. for most students).
You need to be meeting basic academic standards to be eligible to continue, which means that the free trial is as much of a chance for the school to try you out as it is for you to learn about them. If you elect to continue with your studies after the 5 weeks, you’ll receive information on your financial aid package. For undergrads, the first term ends after a total of 10 weeks of study.
The Kaplan Commitment option is available to both online and campus students. The school claims the program has helped it boost graduation rates significantly for “at risk” students, doing even better than many public and non-profit schools. It’s an effort that puts Kaplan itself at risk to a degree. According to Peter Smith, Vice President for Academic Strategies at the school, “the so-called ‘Kaplan Commitment’ experiment is expected to cost…$150 million annually but is a necessary response to rising rates of students who default on loans because they either don’t graduate or struggle in the job market after receiving their degrees.”
- University of Phoenix: doesn’t exactly offer a free-trial, but does require any student with less than 24 college credits to take a free orientation program, three weeks in length, that’s designed to ensure that they are ready to handle college-level study. According to UOP chief student and campus operating officer Jerrad Tausz, “Students can see what [college] is really like prior to accruing debt…they can then determine if a college education at University of Phoenix is something that is really for them at this time.”
Issues covered in the Phoenix “Orientation Workshop” include an overview of computer requirements and how to communicate with instructors, do homework and use online discussion forums. Organization and time management skills, as well as how to use the university library and other online tools and applications, are also covered. Students get two assignments per week during the workshop (if you are interested you should check with the school – online workshops are run every week, but the program is not offered on the same schedule at all campus locations).
A New York Times article in October stated that the University of Phoenix’s parent company announced that the school would be launching an actual free trial offer, but details have not yet been provided.
- StraighterLine: this is not a full-fledged college, but an interesting new company that allows students to get through college more quickly and cheaply by taking the kind of basic courses that are usually part of the first or second year of school online and at an extremely low cost. Credits from the courses are accepted for transfer into a wide number of different colleges.
StraighterLine offers a free trial course for students who want to test the college waters. However, the trial is not a complete course and does not earn any credits. The credits are earned only if you sign up for the full version of the course and complete it. Keep in mind StraighterLine is extraordinary cheap – most courses cost just $49.
- Sage Colleges: This affiliated group of old private schools around Albany, NY offers an interesting-sounding “Achieve Degree,” for “non-traditional students, such as those on the autism spectrum, with ADHD, Crohn’s disease or other special needs.” The school offers a free trial to this particular program for these special needs students who feel that college may be challenging. An 8-week trial course is provided free with no obligation, along with a “life lab on online learning & time management.” The program is run once every fall, with applications due on June 1. It looks like a good way to move gradually into this 4 year degree program, which is meant “students who have the ability and ambition… who simply are not comfortable in a traditional classroom.” Information on Sage College’s program here.
Opinion: I suspect that many tradition academics will be horrified by a concept as commercial sounding as a “free no-risk trial offer” being applied to higher education. But given that so many students today are clearly coming into college without good reading or reading skills, or even an understanding that college will be more demanding that high school, this is an approach that offers real value. About 20% of the students who take the free orientation at University of Phoenix decide to not enroll in a full time program. Hopefully they find other paths to their career goals through certificates or vocational training. But it’s far better for any student who does not belong in college to find it out at the start of the process, rather than drifting along for several years and realizing college was a mistake after they have build up significant debt on student loans. Look for more colleges to offer free trials in the future.