Are free online courses from prestigious universities worth it?

Oct 05, 2022 - updated Jan 31, 2023

4 mins

Are free online courses from prestigious universities worth it?
Katie Arnold-Ratliff

Katie is a US-based writer and editor.

It’s an enticing proposition: a venerable institution listed on your resume, attesting to your skills, and all for little more than a nominal fee and a few weeks of your time. We’re talking, of course, about technology certifications available online from some of the world’s most prestigious universities. These classes, known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), have become a $5.16 billion industry, thanks to the popularity of digital learning platforms like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, and edX.

So, what do they offer? Just about anything you can imagine related to the tech sector. Harvard professors will teach you the basics of computer science over eleven weeks, then grant you a certificate of completion for $149. Note that in many cases, the course itself is free; the professional documentation is what you pay for. Or you can dive into a C Programming course from Dartmouth, adding a certification to your resume for $79; learn all about algorithms from Penn ($149 for the edX certificate); or take a course on the Internet of Things from Columbia (certification cost: $99). The list goes on, and includes offerings from non-Ivies, too—everywhere from Rutgers to UC Berkeley, Purdue, and the University of Arizona—as well as big names in the tech world, including IBM.

Taking these courses certainly shows drive and a sense of entrepreneurship and makes clear to employers that you strive to keep your skills competitive. But the reality is that none of these certifications are equal to a real live bachelor’s degree—so the question, then, is whether having one (or even several) makes you more attractive as a potential employee.

What the data shows

It can’t be denied that e-learning has become a massive industry. According to data amassed by Research and Markets, the e-learning market is projected to swell to $325 billion by 2025. This market was valued at $165 billion in 2014, meaning it will have nearly doubled in just over a decade.

What does this tell us? That e-learning’s increasing ubiquity likely means that its validity among employers is also growing. That trend may be attributed in part to the greater adoption among companies of internal e-learning methods. Skill Dynamics reports that 41.7% of the world’s most profitable companies use online tools to upskill employees. As more of the world’s biggest companies have come to rely on internal e-learning modules to keep staff up to par, it stands to reason that they’d also see the value of an outside hire’s e-learning experience. That’s good news for job seekers.

It’s also good business for hiring managers. According to 2023 statistics from, e-learning (instead of learning from a fellow employee, face-to-face) increases retention rates to 82% on average. It also allows employees to go back and revisit the material to strengthen their grasp, something that simply isn’t possible with one-on-one training. And the data bears this out: according to research conducted by Statista, 81% of American college students say that digital learning tools have helped them boost their grades. In other words, e-learning doesn’t just benefit companies, but employees—and would-be employees—as well.

Making your certification work for you

According to a lively chat on the job search website Career Karma on this very subject, many employers have indeed learned that online tech certifications are good indicators of a candidate’s skills, as well as their motivation and ability to be a self-starter. While the experts on the site caution that no one should count solely on a MOOC certification to get them hired in their chosen field, they do add a bit of luster to a job hunter’s resume. Says Career Karma Community Manager Ed Quidlat, citing one of the most prominent MOOC platforms, “Many tech employers know edX specializes in career-focused learning, so they’ll know you have in-demand skills.”

It’s also important to get strategic about presenting and discussing your certification during the hiring process. For example, says another Community Manager Pam Punzalan, “Many of the self-paced courses include a hands-on project, so you’ll have something to show potential employers.” That’s a tidbit well worth bringing up in both your cover letter and interview, and certainly if a hiring manager asks to see a portfolio of your past work. And Community Manager Jamie Ararao points out a practical effect of these online certification programs: their “student discussion forums for peer networking,” which can help you connect with a wider pool of job opportunities.

Employers value online learning

In a forum on, real-world employers answered the question, “Do employers see value in Coursera/edX/MOOCs certificates” with nuanced—and illuminating—responses. Matthew Higgins of PricewaterhouseCoopers, who has experience with hiring for the company, said he does value these certifications since they show that a candidate is likely a self-starter willing to identify and fill skill gaps on your own … I don’t expect my team members to know everything, but I do expect them to not only be willing to learn but [to] take the extra steps to do so.” Recruiter Carol Kampf echoes this sentiment: “I totally look at the extra training a candidate gets,” she said. “So yes, list those classes and/or certs! It’s a good move, [and] shows your interest in learning.”

Lastly, when we spoke to cybersecurity consultant Eric Florence of SecurityTech, he explained that certifications can carry more weight in different niches within the tech field—like, for example, his own. “There is a serious shortage of cybersecurity professionals,” Florence says. “Many companies are training employees that were in other roles and offering development to new employees without experience. Anyone looking for a very secure job, pun intended, can acquire cybersecurity certificates to give themselves a leg up over inexperienced candidates.” Of course, Florence is quick to mention that a certification “doesn’t carry the same weight as a degree. But if you proactively acquired this knowledge on your own time, and companies are willing to develop employees to fill these roles, you’ll find a career.”

The final verdict? Yes, those certifications do matter—or rather, they can, provided that you know how to play them up to your advantage. When applying for jobs, be proactive about describing how your course helped you expand your knowledge and get specific about the concrete skills you obtained. That shouldn’t be a problem, however: If you were enough of a go-getter to take a skill-boosting course of your own accord, you’ve definitely got what it takes to sell yourself during the hiring process.

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