Last week I mentioned the rise of an intriguing secular tuition-free online college. However, the University of the People isn't the only thing goin'. There are already some Christians schools which focus on providing undergrad and grad level biblical and theological training. In some ways the Christian colleges, with access to a willing cadre of qualified volunteer staff, are at the forefront on this one.
Two Schools Already in Operation
The two most prominent tuition-free online Christian colleges are NationsUniversity and The North American Reformed Seminary. While both represent sectarian views and are somewhat on the fringes of the evangelical movement, they are to be commended for breaking the ground.
NationsUniversity offers a certificate, as well as BRS, MRS, and MDiv degrees. They have a solid mostly-volunteer faculty that all represent the Churches of Christ/Christian Church perspective. NationsU charges a $100 annual fee if the student is in the US. Otherwise it is all free.
At this point they are not accredited but they appear to be seriously pursuing DETC accreditation. (DETC is a legitimate accreditor recognized by CHEA and the US Department of Education.) They are having to upgrade some of their courses to get the recognition. Their willingness to do so is good sign.
A few tuition-dependent colleges do recognize the NationsUniversity degrees and transfer credits.
Instruction is available in seven languages. According to a recent newsletter 60% of the students do their school work via the web, 15% by email alone, and 25% use the postal system. They have 3,500 undergrad and 578 grad students. About 2/3 of the students are from outside the US. This is a very impressive mission effort.
The North American Reformed Seminary offers AATS, BATS, MATS, MDiv, and DMin degrees. They do not make as much information about their students body or faculty available. There is, however, a waiting list to enroll.
The seminary is unaccredited but is recognized by several established churches in the Reformed tradition. That is, those denominations will accept a degree from this school to meet the academic requirements for ministerial training.
A lot of the classes seemed to involve simply listening to lectures from various Reformed sources and writing 40 page papers interacting with the lecture material. Such an approach does not involve a lot of learner-to-learner interaction and doesn't really take full creative advantage of what can be done through distance learning.
So far I haven't found any online tuition-free degree-granting theological colleges or seminaries from within the evangelical mainstream. There are schools with extremely cheap tuition. And there are some free biblical studies options that don't quite have the rigor and accountability required when an academic degree is involved. We have not yet begun to pursue the online tuition-free degree-granting open-learning model.
This kind of learning is not for everyone. And there are limits as to what can be learned through this approach. But there is great untapped potential -- especially on a global level. The idea of coalescing students from many distant places and cultures for the purpose of studying together is very intriguing. We are just beginning to grasp the potential.