How to get a free Ivy education...and boost your career

Harvard Business School
Brent Lewin | Bloomberg | Getty Images

If you ever wanted an Ivy League education on your resume without the Ivy League sticker price, there are a few ways to do it. But are these classes really worth the effort?

The answer is yes ... with some caveats.

In recent years, free and open online classes from colleges like Harvard and Yale have taken off as Ivy League schools seek to make some of their courses more accessible. Experts say these courses are starting to gain traction in the job market.

Completing a massive open online course (MOOC) or certificate shows an employer that a job candidate is motivated and curious — and that could potentially set them apart from other applicants, career experts said. But it won't necessarily land you a new job.

"It's still new, so it's not 100 percent respected by executives who are used to hiring people with similar education backgrounds, who went through the traditional route. But we're early on," said best-selling author and millennial career expert Dan Schawbel. "More and more companies are looking outside of traditional degrees for talent."

Students and recruiters agree: it's all about how you show what you've learned.

When it comes to anything in life, it's how you communicate your experience.
Dan Schawbel
Millennial career expert and best-selling author

There are hundreds of courses in subjects such as data science, app development and business management, available from highly ranked colleges including Harvard, Yale and MIT or through platforms like Coursera or edX, which offer a fuller experience of professors, grades and some level of verification.

"It's an indication that the person has some interest and initiative," said Forum Group's co-founder and president, Frank Fusaro. "But I don't think it's something an employer is going to fall over about. Yes, it's a good thing, but is it something that carries a lot of weight? No."

For Daun Davids, a programmer with a master's degree in computational science and robotics, taking several Coursera classes has helped her get back into the job market and land more freelance work.

"I was really so excited about the capstone project because I was coming out of it with something I could show. I didn't just watch videos and do work, I completed this big project and put it on GitHub," said Davids, who has since coded multiple Android apps and plans to move to Denver to pursue full-time work.

It's been showing these apps and telling people about her capstone that has helped her the most.

"Brick-and-mortar schools don't necessarily change as fast as what I can get at Coursera," said the 52-year-old programmer with more than 20 years of experience.

According to a Coursera survey of 52,000 students, one-third of people who took classes to advance their career said they received a tangible benefit like a raise or secure a new job.

"Recruiters are not only just looking for the specific skills, but the person who is a lifelong learner looking to refresh their skills and get ahead," Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller told CNBC.

Some in the industry think verification for MOOC learning needs to be improved. EdX and Coursera require users to verify their identity by submitting official ID and a photo taken from a webcam. In addition, edX has introduced virtual proctoring to monitor student activity, randomizing test questions where students receive different prompts and Coursera uses keystroke identification (or your typing pattern) to confirm a student's identity.

"We are continuously improving our platform and implementing new tools and features to help ensure that the learner taking the MOOC and completing the assignments, is the same learner earning the certificate," said Nina Huntemann, edX's director of academics and research.

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According to one Harvard Business School professor who's taught an edX course, there needs to be better verification in order for employers to take MOOC certificates seriously.

"EdX solves the problem of getting good content to people, just like Coursera or Khan Academy, but we need to pair that with technological algorithms for verifying the quality of learning — that scale," said Harvard professor Tarun Khanna who taught an edX course on entrepreneurship in emerging countries.

"I feel very strongly that we as educators need a much better third-party credentialing system" Khanna said.

"We all need to recognize that this verification is far from tamper proof. If people are determined to cheat, frankly they will, even in proctored environments. We just have to assume that most of our learners are generally interested in the material, it's valuable to them," Coursera's Koller said.

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The need to improve verification, however, hasn't stopped millions of learners from signing up. Coursera touts more than 18 million learners, while edX counts 7 million.

"When it comes to anything in life, it's how you communicate your experience. It's the application of these skills that matters," Schawbel said.