The Freshman Year for Free Program launched in 2017 by Modern States Education Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to college access. The program has since helped more than 200,000 students earn free college credit.
The Freshman Year for Free program provides more than 30 free online courses taught by top college professors. Once students complete a course, the program provides vouchers for them to take an AP or CLEP exam to earn traditional academic credits at more than 2,900 colleges and universities.
My College Planning Team recently talked with David Vise, executive director of Modern States, about how the program works and why more students don’t take advantage of it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Teddy Nykiel (TN): What are the qualifications to participate in the program?
David Vise (DV): All you need to do is go to modernstates.org and sign up. It’s open to all people without any qualification of any kind needed. So, all you do is sign up for the program and enroll in a course and go. If you click on “view all courses,” it looks like Netflix and instead of movies, you get courses. And instead of movie trailers, you get professors explaining a little bit about what the course is about. So you can sample around and see if you like a professor before you decide which course to start with.
TN: When you say to “open all students,” that’s also regardless of location, no matter what state they’re in?
DV: Any student anywhere can do this. All you need is an Internet connection… Now, some people say this sounds too good to be true. “How can there be a program where I earn free college credit? What’s the catch?” The catch here is that you have to do the work. You have to take the course. You have to take the practice exam and pass it before we will give you the voucher to pay for the $89 CLEP exam fee.
TN: Speaking of CLEP, we work with a lot of high school counselors and many of them haven’t even heard of CLEP. Why is it such an under-the-radar program?
DV: Great question. Most people have never heard of CLEP, even though it’s been around for more than 50 years. CLEP was originally designed as a program for adults and adult learners, including [those on] active duty military. And so, it isn’t better known among high school or college students because it’s a program that was designed for adults. However, it’s increasingly being used by them, especially as there is so much of an emphasis on students graduating from high school with college credit, which of course is because of the high cost of college. This really helps you bring down the cost of college by up to 20-25%.
TN: Speaking of earning college credit in high school, there are other programs for that. A lot of people know about AP courses and dual credit. How does CLEP that fit in with those? Do you recommend that students do all of those programs, or do they choose the program that fits best for their needs?
DV: I think whatever is best for them. These are all programs to help them earn credit while they’re still in high school. CLEP courses and CLEP exams are easier than AP courses and exams, and you can do them faster than you can do AP classes. And the quality is very, very high. All of our courses are taught by college professors from some terrific schools across the country — Johns Hopkins University, George Washington University, American University, Columbia University, Rutgers, lots of SUNY schools and many others.
TN: How do you see most students using the Freshman Year for Free Program? Are they doing it while they’re in high school or are they taking a gap year between college and high school? How are they fitting it into the rest of their studies?
DV: They’re fitting it into their lives in any way they can. It’s most heavily used by active-duty military members — they make up about 25% of the CLEP exams taken every year. But the rest of the categories that you mentioned are pretty well spread throughout high school students, college students and working adults. And that includes adults who maybe started college and dropped out for one reason or another, and this is a road back into [college]. A lot of people lack the confidence that they can do college-level work. And so, this is a way to dip your toe in the water without any cost. I’ve interviewed a lot of the students and found that taking one of these courses and passing an exam gives them the confidence that they can do college-level work. And that’s really a critical component of enrolling in college.
TN: So just to clarify, many students are doing it kind of as an extra class while they’re in high school?
DV: Yes. Unless the teacher is adding it into the curriculum. It’s being used differently by every high school. You know, some teachers are using it as part of a course. Others are using it during study halls. Others are just leaving it up to the student to do it. And some are actually doing what’s called the flipped classroom model, where they have students watch one of the lessons in a course, on their own is homework, and then they discuss it the next day in class.
TN: Like you mentioned, it sounds too good to be true. How widely accepted or widely implemented has this program been?
DV: We launched the program in the fall of 2017, and we have had 235,000 students of all ages sign up for the program so far. And we have a lot of room to grow. Obviously, there’s a big need out there with the high cost of college and with people being forced to take on lots of student debt. But so far, we’ve reached over 200,000 people. And I would say we’re just getting started.