In an unusual arrangement with a commercial company, dozens of public universities plan to offer an introductory online course free and for credit to anyone worldwide, in the hope that those who pass will pay tuition to complete a degree program.
The universities -- including Arizona State, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Arkansas system -- will choose which of their existing online courses to convert to a massive open online course, or MOOC, in the new program, called MOOC2Degree.
The proliferation of free online courses from top universities like Harvard and Stanford over the past year has prompted great interest in online learning. But those courses, so far, have generally not carried credit.
"We're taking the MOOC idea, but now it will be part of a degree program, not a novelty," said Randy Best, the chairman of Academic Partnerships, a company that helps public universities move their courses online.
If MOOC2Degree succeeds in attracting thousands of degree students, the new revenue stream could be a lifeline for public universities hit hard by declining financial support from states.
Under the arrangement, Academic Partnerships will handle recruitment for MOOC2Degree and will receive an undisclosed share of the tuition the universities get from students who continue into a degree program.
"It's a bold strategy on the part of the institutions," said Michael Tanner, vice president for academic affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. "In some sense, it's a new recruitment strategy: give them a free sample, and maybe they'll find they have an appetite for it. It's hard to say how well it will work. The MOOC business will become crowded over time."
Mr. Best said that while he expected the program to expand to a wide range of associate, bachelor's and graduate programs, many of the initial offerings would be in professional-development programs, like those leading to a master's in education or a bachelor of science in nursing.
The University of Cincinnati, though, plans to offer, free, its Innovation and Design Thinking course, which can lead to master's degrees in either business or engineering.
"We're confident that once MOOC students begin interacting with our expert faculty and their fellow classmates, they'll begin forming a lasting educational relationship with the university," said Lawrence J. Johnson, the interim provost.
At the University of Texas, Arlington, Academic Partnerships has already experimented with a free introductory course for nurses with an R.N. who wanted to earn a bachelor's degree.
"We started it, frankly, as a campaign to grow enrollment," Mr. Best said. "But 72 to 84 percent of those who did the first course came back and paid to take the second course."
There are potential benefits to students and universities alike.
"Universities bring in students who wouldn't have come to them otherwise, and have a chance to observe the academic preparedness of students before they start a degree program," Mr. Best said. "And students get to try risk-free learning, online."education
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.