TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 23

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. A “13th year” of public education combines the supportive environment of high school with the first year of community college — and more students are staying enrolled.

By Rebecca Schuman in Slate

2. Imagine drones as solar-powered and mobile cell towers delivering connectivity to underserved areas.

By Adele Peters in Co.Exist

3. Large employers offering employees at-home solar power at a deep discount could help scale and create demand for this critical renewable resource.

By Diane Cardwell in the New York Times

4. If “democracy” is intended to work for everyone, not just the political class in America, it’s clearly failing.

By Clive Crook in Bloomberg View

5. With each success, new community partnerships exercise greater strength, building civic confidence to solve persistent regional problems.

By Monique Miles in the Aspen Journal of Ideas

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY 529 plans

Why the Best College Savings Plans Are Getting Better

stack of money under 5-2-9 number blocks
Jan Cobb Photography Ltd—Getty Images

Low-cost 529 college savings plans continue to rise to the top in Morningstar's latest ratings.

Competition is creating ever-better investment options for parents who want to save for their kids’ college costs through tax-preferred 529 college savings plans, according to Morningstar’s annual ratings of the 64 largest college savings plans.

In a report released today, the firm gave gold stars to 529 plans featuring funds managed by T. Rowe Price and Vanguard. The Nevada 529 plan, for example, which offers Vanguard’s low-cost index funds, has long been one of Morningstar’s top-rated college savings options. The plan became even more attractive this year when it cut the fees it charges investors from 0.21% of assets to 0.19%, says Morningstar senior analyst Kathryn Spica.

“In general, the industry is improving” its offerings to investors, Spica adds.

You can invest in any state’s 529. In many states, however, you qualify for special tax breaks by investing in your home-state 529 plan. If you don’t, you should shop nationally, paying attention to fees and investment choices.

Morningstar raised Virginia’s inVEST plan, which offers investment options from Vanguard, American Funds and Aberdeen, from bronze to silver ratings, in part because Virginia cut its fees from 0.20% to 0.15% early this year.

Virginia’s CollegeAmerica plan continued as Morningstar’s top-rated option for those who pay a commission to buy a 529 plan through an adviser. American Funds, which manages the plan, announced in June it would waive some fees, such as set-up charges.

But there are exceptions. Morningstar downgraded two plans—South Dakota’s CollegeAccess 529 and Arizona’s Ivy Funds InvestEd 529 Plan—to “negative” because of South Dakota’s high fees and problems with Arizona’s fund managers.

Rhode Island’s two college savings plans moved off the negative list this year after the state started offering a new investment option based on Morningstar’s recommended portfolio of low-cost index funds. Given the potential conflict of interest, Morningstar did not rate the plans in 2014.

Joseph Hurley, founder of Savingforcollege.com, which also rates 529 plans, says he hasn’t analyzed the Morningstar-modeled funds because they are new and don’t have enough of a track record. But, he adds, the Rhode Island direct-sold 529 plan offers several low-cost index fund options.

Here are Morningstar’s top-rated 529 plans for 2014:

State Fund company Investment method Expenses (% of assets) for moderate age-based portfolio (ages 7 to 12) Five-year annualized return for moderate age-based portfolio (ages 7 to 12)
Alaska T. Rowe Price Active 0.88% 11.25%
Maryland T. Rowe Price Active 0.88% 11.42%
Nevada Vanguard Passive 0.19% 8.65%
Utah Vanguard Passive 0.22% 8.01%

Related:

 

 

 

TIME Education

More of America’s Foreign College Students Should Come From Mexico

Graduates throwing caps in air
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Andrés Martinez is editorial director of Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column.

Even though it is our neighbor, our second-largest trading partner, and home to almost 120 million people

My Mexican father applied to colleges in the United States in the late 1940s, and was offered scholarships by the University of Arizona and Western Reserve (now Case Western Reserve) in Cleveland. His father sat him down and drew a line from west to east across a map of the United States and said: “Below this line, they don’t like Mexicans.” It was a fateful moment, all but ensuring Dad would return to Mexico upon graduation. He did not like the cold. He would have loved Tucson.

Dad did enjoy his studies in Cleveland, and got a lot out of the experience, notwithstanding his nearly flunking music composition (not long ago I stumbled across a copy of his transcript). His was a classic liberal arts education, blending economics, history, and literature. Upon graduation, he returned to Mexico, got a job, and enrolled in an evening law school. He went on to have a successful business career, much of which involved connecting Mexico to the United States and (though not as a conscious matter) spreading American values to those who worked with him.

A fascinating new Brookings report on the foreign student population of the United States made me think of Dad’s experience, and what he and the United States got out of the deal. As Neil G. Ruiz, the author of the report, put it over the phone, migrant students build bridges between societies, and over time those bridges carry a lot of economic activity. This means that the United States is, in many cases, educating the future leaders of the world, particularly the future leaders of emerging nations. We currently take in about a fifth of all students worldwide who cross borders to study, though these students still make up less than 4 percent of the entire student population in the U.S.

Ruiz and his team looked not only at countries of origin for the 1,153,459 foreign students enrolled in higher education programs between 2008 and 2012, but their cities of origin and the metropolitan areas they cluster in within the U.S. So, for instance, the data compiled by Brookings shows there were 7,109 students (F-1 visa holders) from Seoul studying in the Los Angeles area during that four-year period. Looking into the future, it’s hard to imagine a more binding tie between the two cities than the presence of all those Korean students in Los Angeles, and their connection to the city long after they graduate.

It isn’t surprising that Asia dominates the census of foreign students in the United States, although I was stunned by just how much. China alone sent 284,173 students in that period. The top 20 hometowns of all foreign students in the United States are in Asia. Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states boast the fastest-growing contingent of students. Shockingly, the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, alone sent more students (17,361) than did the entire country of Mexico (17,171).

Mexico, ranked ninth among countries sending students here, is vastly underrepresented among foreign students when you consider that it is our neighbor, our second-largest trading partner, and home to almost 120 million people. The fact that the country lags behind cities like Riyadh and Taipei in the numbers of students it sends to American universities shows that Mexico and the United States remain “distant neighbors” in some ways, as Alan Riding termed the relationship in his book of that title three decades ago.

It also shows that money talks. In addition to having many families able to pay the high cost of tuition abroad, countries like China and Saudi Arabia offer lavish scholarships to promising kids. The U.S. has a strategic need to attract more students from Mexico and other countries who don’t have this kind of financial backing. But American universities prefer to see foreign students as a profit center. Texas has long been a welcome exception to the rule, offering Mexican nationals with financial need in-state tuition at public universities as a matter of policy. Meanwhile, the Obama administration and its Mexican counterpart have announced initiatives to increase the flow of students across the border to 100,000 in coming years, but the question of who pays for all those students remains an open one.

Our policy discussions about foreign students in this country also disproportionately focus on students focusing on science and technology. Lawmakers, analysts, and businesses are all advocating the creation of an easier path for those pursuing advanced STEM degrees to stay and work here once they obtain their degrees. There is widespread support, echoed by the Brookings report, for a law that would automatically grant these graduates a green card.

That makes a great deal of sense, but we shouldn’t take too utilitarian a view of foreign students in this country, writing off those incapable of writing code or finding their way around a lab. Yes, we want to be the world’s innovation hub, attracting the best and brightest to our great research universities. But we also benefit from having students come here from all over the world to learn our history, as well as our democratic and capitalist values.

And that’s true even—maybe especially so—if they go back home because it was too cold in Cleveland.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY Opinion

What Congress Should Do to Give Student Loan Borrowers Hope For Relief

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Blend Images - Hill Street Studi—Getty Images/Brand X

Student loans are the only debt that can't be discharged in bankruptcy. Joe Valenti and David Bergeron of the Center for American Progress argue for two law changes to fix this.

Steve Mason’s story could keep any parent up at night.

The Redlands, Calif. pastor co-signed $100,000 in private student loans for his daughter Lisa to attend nursing school. But Lisa died suddenly at age 27.

Now, the loans intended to ensure her financial future are threatening to impoverish her parents and their three young grandchildren because Mason remains on the hook for the loans. He is struggling to provide for his family while trying to negotiate with lenders to settle on his daughter’s debt which, with interest and penalties, now totals about $200,000.

If he had co-signed a car loan for his daughter, or if his family had racked up credit card debt, or nearly any other kind of debt, the Masons would have had a way out: bankruptcy. Our Founding Fathers, appalled by British debtors’ prisons, created bankruptcy courts to give Americans that are struggling with debt a chance to reduce or even erase those financial burdens, and gain a fresh start.

Unfortunately, Congress has carved out an exception to this American promise: student loans.

The student loan exception to bankruptcy laws ignores tragic life situations of students, parents, and grandparents alike. And it should be changed. A common-sense approach to bankruptcy reform would help struggling families like the Masons while promoting a better student loan system for everyone.

How Student Loans Became the Exception to the Rule

Until 1976, all types of loans were treated equally under bankruptcy law. But that year, Congress passed the first exception, declaring that bankruptcy judges could only dismiss federal student loans under the direst of circumstances.

In 2005, Congress expanded the exception to include private student loans—those made by banks and credit unions.

Now, bankruptcy judges are only allowed to discharge the student loans of those who have proven they have “undue hardships,” which generally means never being able to work again.

The death or disability of a borrower discharges federal student loans. But private loans—such as those the Masons took out—don’t have those provisions. So private student loans plague those who are disabled as well as the survivors of those who have passed away, such as the Masons.

All together, under current law, it is next-to-impossible to get rid of any kind of student debt in bankruptcy.

How to Fix the Problem

Here are two simple steps that would help make student loans fairer and more bearable:

1) Allow judges to wipe out the private student loans of any private lender that fails to:

A) Discharge loans in the cases of death and disability, as the federal government does.

B) Charge reasonable interest rates.

C) Allow borrowers repayment flexibility, such as deferment and forbearance options for those in financial difficulties.

2) Allow judges to wipe out any student loans—including federal loans—taken out for colleges that:

A) Have high dropout rates.

B) Have high student loan default rates.

Lenders who charge reasonable rates, allow flexible repayment and wipe out the debts of the disabled and deceased could be considered “qualified” for the current tough bankruptcy rules. Bankruptcy would remain the narrow path of last resort it was designed to be for borrowers. But lenders who don’t meet these standards—basically, those that don’t give borrowers any way out—would be subject to the same bankruptcy laws as other lenders.

Schools, too, would need to earn the bankruptcy exemption for the programs they offer. If students are not likely to complete the programs they’re borrowing for, or generally don’t earn enough to pay back the debt, their federal or private student loans would be dischargeable. There is no sense in penalizing students, parents, and grandparents lured by false promises of success.

Indeed, a study two decades ago by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that low-income borrowers who dropped out of poor-performing schools were the borrowers who most frequently defaulted on their loans—not successful young grads simply trying to walk away from their obligations.

It is economic circumstances, rather than moral failings, that often brings families to bankruptcy as a way to deal with difficult and unforeseen situations. Surely the Masons could not have anticipated their current situation. And it’s probably a situation that no member of Congress anticipated either when they closed the doors of bankruptcy court to virtually all student loan debtors.

These are doors that Congress, and Congress alone, can reopen for students, parents, and grandparents who have fallen on hard times to have equal access to the same courts that the wealthy and corporations have used to make a fresh start. And these doors can be opened strategically to make sure bankruptcy remains a last resort.

Otherwise, families like the Masons will continue to struggle needlessly.

Joe Valenti is the Director of Asset Building at the Center for American Progress. David Bergeron is the Vice President of Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

TIME Education

Poverty the Biggest Factor in Whether Students Go to College

Income was more correlated with college attendance than other demographic factors

Income level is the greatest indicator of whether a high school graduate will attend college, according to a study released Tuesday.

The National Student Clearinghouse looked at more than 3.5 million graduates of public high schools over the past several years, and found that high school graduates from schools with more poor people are significantly less likely to attend college than their counterparts at schools with majority middle-to-upper-income level students.

At low-income schools, defined as schools where more than 50% of students qualify for discounted lunch programs, the college enrollment rate ranged from 47-58% in the fall following graduation. At schools that the study categorized as “high-income,” enrollment stood at 61-73%.

The study’s sample looked at college enrollment numbers from 2013 and 2012, though the sample pool included those that graduated high school from 2010-2013.

“This report draws with bold relief the disparities in college access that are aligned with income levels in our schools,” Daniel A. Domenech, head of the American Association of School Administrators, said in a press release. “As a nation, we must do all we can to address the educational challenges facing students at low-income schools.”

Schools’ location (urban/rural/suburban) and racial demographics were less correlated with college enrollment than income, the study found, but still played a part in the probability of student enrollment in college. Within the sample of higher-income schools, for instance, students from low-minority suburban schools were significantly more likely to enroll in college following graduation than students at high-minority urban schools.

At private high schools, college enrollment was well above the average for public schools. More than 85% of private high school graduates enrolled in college immediately following graduation in 2013.

TIME Education

How to Write a Successful College Essay

Write with pen and paper or type on computer
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Former Harvard admissions interviewer Anna Redmond offers advice

Answer by Anna Redmond, former Harvard admissions interviewer, on Quora.

The best advice I could give you is not to write an essay.

Write ten. Preferably all about different topics. About your pet that died because your parents couldn’t afford a vet, your grandmother’s pile of World War II letters in the attic, how you felt the time your algebra teacher sent you to the principal’s office for wearing the same shirt your friend was wearing but only you got in trouble because you had bigger breasts.

When you’re done, put them in a folder and ignore them for a week. Then sit down and reread them in one sitting.

What you will see when you do this is themes. They will start to poke their noses out of the woodwork. If you’ve done this honestly, these are gold you have been mining for. They should talk about who you think you are. Who you are trying to be. Hold on to the themes, particularly the ones that are the most honest and the most identifying. Remember, as you write, the essay is not about what you have done. The essay is about who you are. If you get to this point, you will know what essay you want to write without having to ask for prompts.

For further inspiration, don’t read other college essays. Pull out the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, or Rolling Stone. Read their profile pieces. You will start to notice that even though these pieces are all about things and events — political campaigns, selling designer jewelry, escaping from rebels — they leave you with a specific opinion about the person. A certain actress may be successful in spite of her demons. A politician calculating but capable of acting with passion and spontaneity. Pay attention to the way these things come out in the types of stories. This is the hallmark of good, impactful writing. Some of the best examples of “show not tell” are to be found here.

Above all, be honest. Believe in yourself — believe that you have something special to bring to the table, and you are telling a story that deserves to be heard.

Good luck!

Oh, and P.S. Since you asked for prompts, here are a few to start you off. These are my own, not pulled from a book. I don’t recommend using them for your entire essay. But if you take my advice and truly begin to explore yourself, these should be a good place to jump in.

  1. Write about something unfair that happened to you and how you dealt with it.
  2. Write about the first time you saw your parents fail at something and how that made you feel.
  3. What is one thing that means a lot to you but other people don’t care about?
  4. Do your teachers express their political opinions when teaching class? How does that make you feel?
  5. What relationship is the most meaningful in your life?
  6. Write about something you’ve done that has made an impact in someone else’s life.
  7. What are some things your school does well? What could they do better?
  8. Who is your favorite author and why?
  9. What accomplishment are you most proud of?
  10. If you could not go to college, what would you do instead?

This question originally appeared on Quora: What should I write my college essay about?

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY College

This “Smart” Way to Pay for College Could End Up Costing You an Extra 3%

A senior at Western Kentucky University walks past flowering cherry trees on WKU's campus on his way home from class.
Western Kentucky University has one of the highest credit card surcharges. Alex Slitz—AP

A new study from CreditCards.com finds that colleges are increasingly adding surcharges for charging tuition. And these fees typically exceed any potential miles or cash back earned from your card.

It’s getting harder to turn junior’s college tuition bills into free vacations for Mom and Dad.

Wealthy parents have long tried to lessen the pain of paying their kids’ tuition bills by charging the costs to a credit card that pays rewards, with the hope of getting a bit of cash back or a roundtrip flight to Rome out of the deal.

But colleges are now making this strategy less profitable by adding fees for charging tuition, according to a study released Tuesday by Creditcards.com.

The survey of the largest public, private, and community colleges found that 90% of the 100 biggest public universities that accept credit cards charge convenience fees, and almost 70% of the 100 biggest private colleges. (Only 12% of the largest community colleges add credit card surcharges, but community colleges tuition tends to be quite low.)

In most cases, the fees now exceed the value of frequent flier miles or cash back that the parents can earn on a rewards card.

The average reward mile or point is worth less than 2¢, says Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com. Meanwhile, the average big college now charges 2.62% for processing tuition through a credit card, according to the survey.

And some schools charge much more. According to the CreditCards.com survey, the big colleges charging the highest fees are:

School State Type Convenience fee rate
Western Kentucky University KY Public 2.99%
Saint Joseph’s University PA Private 2.99%
Roger Williams University RI Private 2.99%
Kansas State University KS Public 2.90%
Ohio University-Main Campus OH Public 2.90%
Kent State University at Kent OH Public 2.90%
University of Akron Main Campus OH Public 2.90%
Bowling Green State University-Main Campus OH Public 2.90%

The Impetus for the Fees

Such fees have become increasingly common in the last decade. A separate survey last year by the National Association of College and University Business Officers had found that 44% of colleges charged a fee for using a credit card, up from 14% in 2003.

Colleges have been adding surcharges in part because they have come under pressure to pare expenses. And credit card companies charge all vendors—including colleges—for processing payments. In 2013, for example, MasterCard’s fees ran from 1.05% to 3.16%.

In addition, schools that do charge fees appear to be encouraging their competitors to follow suit.

“I get a lot of complaints from other schools” that charge fees, says Michael Reynolds, executive director of student financial services at Auburn University, which doesn’t add a surcharge. Reynolds says Auburn absorbs the surcharge—which he estimates at between 1% and 2% of the amount charged—as a cost of doing business.

He estimates that about half Auburn’s tuition bills are put on credit cards. In most cases, he says, it’s just a matter of convenience for the parent or student. But he added that some families do seem to be trying to build up rewards.

The Better Alternative for Most

The fees are just one of many reasons financial experts warn parents away from charging tuition.

Credit card interest rates are usually so high that parents who don’t have enough ready cash to pay off the bill immediately could end up paying thousands of dollars in extra interest, says Kevin Yuann, director of credit cards for NerdWallet.

Anyone who can’t pay cash up front for tuition would really be better off with federal student or parent loans.

Compared to the 15.66% average annual percentage rate on credit cards, federal student loans charge just 4.9% this year, after fees are added in. Parent PLUS loans have a total APR, including fees, of 8.1%.

The federal loans also have much more flexible repayment options, allowing borrowers to stretch out payments for up to 25 years or adjust the payments downwards if their incomes fall. Students working in public service jobs can also get some of their federal loans forgiven.

The Best Reward for the Rest

Absolutely sure you can pay off the big credit card balance quickly? Contact your school to find out whether there’s a fee for swiping.

While the majority have one, there are still several schools that do not charge students or parents extra. For example:

School State Type
Auburn University AL Public
DePaul University IL Private
St John’s University-New York NY Private
The University of Alabama AL Public
University of Nevada-Las Vegas NV Public

And then, assuming there is no charge, make sure you’re getting the most back you can.

Nick Ewen, a frequent business traveler who writes often on rewards at ThePointsGuy.com, says parents with lots of ready cash can turn tuition into valuable goodies.

One British Airways card, for example, offers a free companion ticket to those who spend at least $30,000 a year. And Southwest Airlines offers a year’s worth of free companion tickets to those who earn at least 110,000 points each calendar year.

Or, consider the winners of MONEY’s Best Credit Cards of 2014. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite offers two points per $1 spent and miles can be applied to your credit card bill to offset the costs of any kind of travel. Or if you prefer cash back, Citi Double Cash and Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express each give you 2% on every purchase.

With the latter, you can direct your earnings to a 529 college savings account—thereby reducing the amount you have to charge next semester.

MONEY Millennials

How Millennials Stalled the Housing Market Recovery

Wrecking ball hitting brick wall
Steve Bronstein—Getty Images

Millennials already have to deal with hefty debt from college, an iffy job market, and growing up in an era where MTV no longer plays music videos, but now they’re being blamed for holding back the real estate boom. Homebuilder adviser John Burns Consulting published details from a study earlier this month concluding that student loan payments will cost the housing industry 414,000 transactions this year that would have totaled $83 billion in sales.

Ouch. The ivory tower is crumbling at the foundation.

It’s been widely assumed that mounting student debt is eating away at this otherwise buoyant housing market recovery. John Burns Consulting’s study — boiled down to a free one-pager for those that aren’t paying customers that got the more thorough report — attempts to quantify the impact.

How did the adviser arrive at $83 billion? Well, we start with the 5.9 million households under the age of 40 that are paying at least $250 in student loan debt, nearly triple the 2.2 million leveraged college grads in the same predicament back in 2005. We then get to the assumption that $250 earmarked for student loan debt every month reduces the buying power of a potential homebuyer by $44,000. That’s bad, and it’s naturally worse depending on how much more than $250 a month some of these indebted students have taken on to pay back. That’s less money they can commit to a mortgage. John Burns Consulting offers up that most households paying at least $750 a month in student loan have priced themselves out of the housing market entirely.

It gets worse

The study only looked at folks between the ages of 20-40. That’s a pretty sizable lot, especially since 35% of all households in that age bracket have at least $250 a month in student debt. However, even John Burns Consulting concedes that there’s “a big chunk of households over age 40 who have student debt” as well. It’s not likely to be as bad, naturally, but it’s all incremental at this point.

This report also happens to come at a time when the housing industry is starting to flinch after a couple of years of boom and bounce. Right now everything seems great. New home sales data released this past week showed the industry’s highest monthly growth rate in more than six years. However, the near-term outlook is starting to get hazy.

Shares of KB Home KB HOME KBH -0.6761% shed more than 5% of their value on Wednesday after reporting uninspiring quarterly results. Revenue and earnings fell short of expectations, and the same can be said about its number of closings and order growth. Earlier this month it was luxury bellwether Toll Brothers TOLL BROTHERS TOL -0.987% setting an uneasy tone after posting a year-over-year decline in the number of contracts it signed during the period and an uptick in the cancellation rate for existing home orders.

It gets better

The student debt crisis is real, and the skyrocketing costs of obtaining a postsecondary education naturally open up the debate of its necessity. However, it’s also important to remember that university grads are earning far more than those that don’t attend college.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). The Condition of Education 2014 (NCES 2014-083), Annual Earnings of Young Adults.

The median of annual earnings for young adults in 2012 was $46,900 for those with a bachelor’s degree, $30,000 for those with just a high school degree or credential and $22,900 for those who did not complete high school. Those going on to grad school for advanced degrees — and that’s where student loans can really start to pile up — are at $59,600 a year.

In other words, most college grads, and especially grad school graduates, are typically better off than those that didn’t pursue higher education, even with the student loan albatross around their white-collared necks. The housing industry would be better off if colleges were cheaper or if student debt levels were lower, but the same can be said about purchasing power in general. At the end of the day, debt-saddled or not, the housing industry needs its college graduates.

TIME Web

How to Take Free Courses from Top Universities

Online Courses
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You can continue your education with some amazing and free online resources available from top universities. These institutions offer many of their courses in the form of video lectures, audio transcripts and online quizzes. And some universities give you access to the professor and let you interact with other students taking the class.

Want to give these free online courses a try? Here are the online education offerings from the top U.S. universities that we think are worth checking out.

Stanford Free Courses

Stanford University, located in Stanford, California, offers an especially rich bounty of material for its amateur online learners. Classes are offered on multiple platforms, letting you watch videos lectures, participate in discussion forums and chats, complete quizzes and even participate in group projects. A wide range of courses are available, from Cryptography to Game Theory to Writing in the Sciences. There are courses on stock market investing and running your own business, too – stuff that you can actually use to benefit your family. Self-paced courses are also available, including the popular Computer Science 101. You can check out Stanford’s collection of online courses by visiting online.stanford.edu/courses.

Webcast.Berkeley

The University of California, Berkeley is one of America’s most esteemed public universities. So, as you might expect, its online course catalog is one of the most serious of the bunch. You’ll find multiple webcasts on biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, history, health, political science, sociology and statistics. You won’t be able to take tests or raise your hand in class, but you can audit every lecture in HD on YouTube. UC Berkeley’s catalog of webcast courses is available for review and viewing at webcast.berkeley.edu.

MIT OpenCourseWare

Looking to live out your Good Will Hunting fantasies? Then check out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) OpenCourseWare system. There, you’ll find video and audio lectures from the top-ranked engineering school. You’ll also be able to access notes, digital assessments and even free online textbooks. Not every class at MIT offers these materials, but the Course Finder tool will let you easily sort the catalog to find those that do. You can view MIT’s searchable wealth of online course materials and lectures at ocw.mit.edu.

Duke University

North Carolina’s Duke University offers a number of interactive, free online courses through the Coursera platform. Lectures in subjects like English Composition and Genetics are offered, with videos broken up into easily digestible YouTube clips; some courses offer online assessments as well. Online learners get to interact with other students and teachers via online message boards and discussion groups, furthering your understanding of the material. To take a look at Duke’s free online course offerings and register for classes, visit coursera.org/duke. You can find plenty of other universities and classes available on Coursera as well.

Harvard Open Courses

World-famous Harvard University teamed up with nearby MIT to create the edX learning platform, which currently offers 42 of its classes for free online. Many of these classes on edX, like Introduction to Computer Science, are self-guided and ready to start anytime you’re are. Others, like AnatomyX, run on a fixed schedule. Some even offer college credit through the Harvard Extension School for a fee; otherwise, completion earns you a nifty free “Honor Code” certificate. You can browse Harvard’s online course listing at edx.org/school/harvardx. (Don’t forget to check out what other schools are offering on the free platform, as well.)

UCLA Free Lecture Webcasts

The University of California, Los Angeles, like UC Berkeley, offers a wealth of class experiences for free online on YouTube. Courses are organized into playlists, so you can watch lectures from courses like Sustainable Living, Modern Civilization 1750 – Present and Probability for Math Science on your own schedule. You should also keep an eye on the UCLA Extension School, which periodically offers free (albeit brief) online classes complete with discussion boards.

Open Yale Courses

Yale, one of the our nation’s oldest institutions of higher learning, offers a limited-albeit-highbrow selection of courses for free online auditing. You can challenge yourself by taking Philosophy and Science of Human Nature, expand your horizons with Listening to Music, or try to get a better understanding of your 401(k) by taking Financial Markets. Courses are available on Coursera, through YouTube and on iTunes through Apple’s iTunes U free learning platform.

Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative

Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon currently offers 21 open and free courses via its Open Learning Initiative (OLI) platform. You can take scientific courses like Biochemistry and Modern Biology if that’s your thing, or plan your vacation to Paris while taking Elementary French I and II. OLI makes it easy to track your progress (with sign-in), while “targeted feedback” and online assignments give you an idea of how well you’re absorbing the material. You can browse what Carnegie Mellon’s OLI has to offer at oli.cmu.edu.

iTunes U

Okay, so maybe this one isn’t an actual college. Still, if your hunger for knowledge knows no bounds, you’ll definitely need to check out Apple’s iTunes U application. Inside, you’ll be connected to thousands of free course offerings from schools all around the globe. iTunes U offers tools to start discussions and ask questions of teachers and students. And since everything is rated on a five-star system, you’ll be able to easily hunt down the best courses in the subjects most interesting to you. You can download iTunes U onto your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch through the Apple App Store.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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MONEY College

Choosing a College Major by Age 16 Pays Off. Here’s Why

Forget the old thinking that kids could wait until college to decide a major. Today, they really ought to be making this decision before their junior year of high school.

I know what you’re thinking: How can I suggest such a thing? Why would we put that kind of pressure on high school students? Shouldn’t they be allowed to explore their interests in college first before having to declare a major?

But what’s the alternative?

By the time most students lock down their major, they’re halfway through their college career or nearly out the door. By some estimates, 80% will change their course of study at least once before graduation. And, we’re telling them not to worry about it. Just take your time, explore your interests and get your diploma.

But with students’ future financial health on the line, discussions around major choice and career path are just happening too late.

Delaying these important decisions could leave a student needing more than four years to complete the class requirements necessary to get a degree, and additional semesters or years add to the already burdensome cost of an education. For bachelor’s degree grads in the class of 2013, average education debt was almost $38,000, according to a report by Edvisors.com.

Additionally, what if a student ultimately ends up choosing a major that leads them into a low-paying field after they’ve already decided on a high-cost school and taken on substantial amounts of student loan debt?

Income-driven repayment plans from the federal government may offer some help for those that choose less lucrative career paths, but these plans do extend the repayment period from the typical 10 years to 20 to 25 years. This could mean that in the years when your children should be thinking about saving for retirement or for their own kids’ education, they’ll still be paying off their student loans. And, these plans won’t apply to any private loans used to fund college.

Major choice, and ultimately career path, should help guide your child’s choices around where to attend college and how much education debt they can afford in the long run. These choices have far-reaching implications. Here at PayScale, we just released data on salary potential for 121 associate degree majors and 207 bachelor degree majors as part of our annual College Salary Report. Understanding earning potential should be a pre-requisite to signing any student loan documents.

Big life decisions are scary, but mountains of debt (and the prospect of your college grad moving into your basement) are much scarier. Twenty-eight percent of Millennials have had to move home with their parents after college due to financial hardship. You’re not doing your son or daughter any favors by advising him or her to delay the decision on a major.

It’s not all on you as the parent either. High school curriculum should be helping students understand real-world applications for what they’re learning and guiding them into career paths for which they’re well-suited. “Career day” doesn’t cut it anymore.

And, I bet if you asked the average 10th grader which careers will have to use algebra on a regular basis, they couldn’t tell you. We need to be showing them why the subjects they’re studying matter and how they apply to careers they may be interested in pursuing. We need to expose them to careers they might not even realize exist.

Even if your kid doesn’t definitively choose a major by the time they graduate high school, starting these conversations early can only benefit them.

Lydia Frank is editorial director at PayScale.com, a site that provides on-demand compensation data and software to employees and employers.

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