Former Apple (AAPL) chief executive Steve Jobs wasn't your ordinary college dropout. Neither lazy nor disinterested in learning, Jobs wanted two things:

1. To save money (he was raised by working-class parents).
2. To focus his study on topics that engaged him.

The solution? Auditing. Jobs the dropout attended classes he found fascinating free of charge at Reed College. The experience changed him. As Jobs said in a 2005 commencement speech at Stanford:

"Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. ...

"Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts."

Three Ways to Learn Like Steve Jobs

When Jobs was auditing calligraphy in the early 1970s, he needed the permission of generous administrators. Today, thanks to the Internet, millions of students around the world can audit thousands of classes and participate in lectures for the same price Jobs paid: zero. No permission required.

Here are three ways to get engaged with top universities and professors online.

1. iTunes U

It's perhaps an appropriate legacy for Jobs that the company he co-founded has set aside a section of its popular iTunes Store for colleges to post course-related audio and video. Dozens of top-name institutions are included.

For example, Yale offers 20 open courses as of this writing. As a financial analyst, I find myself particularly drawn to professor Douglas Rae's course on capitalism as seen through the lens of biological evolution. In all, iTunes U offers 23 lectures from his class, "Capitalism: Success, Crisis and Reform."

Other schools you'll find on iTunes U include UC Berkeley, which is offering more than 80 classes from its fall 2011 semester; Harvard University, which has posted its entire "Introduction to Computer Science" course; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has posted a course on designing the sorts of algorithms that govern much of today's World Wide Web.

To my biased mind, all that's missing is coursework from California Lutheran University. The small liberal arts school nestled in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where I received my undergraduate degree isn't offering content through iTunes U.


Organized by topic more than school, this free collection of resources subscribes to the idea that education is "an undeniable human right." Subsections of the site point to online classes organized by study area. Other services include indexes of videos, courseware, textbooks, podcasts, research archives, writing tutorials, and resources for language learning.

Online textbooks and other reading materials could prove particularly valuable for students who might otherwise spend hundreds on study materials. For example, the site has its own "Biology Pages" that includes links to most major themes and subthemes in the study of life.

Parents in particular are sure to appreciate the effort. The cost of college rose more than 400% from 1984 to 2007, or about three times as fast as the median U.S. family income, says in a graphic arguing for free online education alternatives.

3. YouTube

YouTube houses a great number of educational resources. Pasadena's Art Center College of Design -- one of the nation's top schools in its area -- posts a select number of lectures via its channel. The London School of Economics posts research findings. And Stanford University offers a mixture of promos, event videos, and class lectures at its channel.

Combined, these and other awesome teaching sites such as Bill Gates favorite Khan Academy offer enterprising students more opportunity for learning than Jobs ever had in his lifetime. Fittingly, he was one of many catalysts for the shift we're now experiencing, a shift that represents an extraordinary gift to millions of financially strapped parents who hope to send children to college. Parents like me, in other words. I'm grateful for the assist.

How are you saving for college? Will you encourage your kids to try online coursework? Please let us know using the comments box below.

Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers owned shares of Apple at the time of publication. Click that link to check out Tim's portfolio holdings and past columns.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple.
Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, as well as creating a bull call spread position in Apple.

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Decible Warp

I think the ways defined in this post about taking free college education are quite old school in my opinion. These I guess are not the updated ways if you really ask me although I know there are some online colleges that are offering accredited courses and diplomas for our ease.

October 05 2013 at 6:34 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

take the free courses online, CLEP test (or other credit by exam route showing you've mastered the material), transcript it at a school like Charter Oak or Thomas Edison that accepts unlimited credit by exam, finish up the few courses CLEP/Dantes/ALEX etc. don't offer tests for at a local brick and mortar college and graduate with an accredited degree without all the debt.

May 29 2012 at 3:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Yeah, taking a few classed won't make you college educated. It may make you appear more interesting or show
some positive character attribute when you apply for jobs. I have never heard of these websites (except the Yale one) so the fact that you were able to even find the resource says something.

November 26 2011 at 11:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dr. Jason Cabler

Sounds like you can take a lot of free classes, but you won't be earning a degree by auditing. I think these free classes are a great way to continue your education or gain knowledge you wouldn't necessarily want to take the time to pay or attend classes for.

College tuition has definitely gotten way out of hand due to the prevalence of student loans that skew the natural economics of the system. However, you CAN go to college debt free if you learn to do things a little differently and change your mindset about about how to pay for it. I wrote an article about 2 weeks ago on that subject entitled "Obama, Student Loans, and You". You can find it here:

November 17 2011 at 11:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Easiest path to a free College education is to read on a third grade level, use "axe" in place of "ask", and be able to consistently can a jump-shot from three point range.

November 17 2011 at 8:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hi evan.

November 16 2011 at 10:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to savemycountry911's comment

I knew you were lurking.

November 16 2011 at 10:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Randy Fox

1 Get a lobotomy 2 Tan heavily 3 Vote liberal

November 16 2011 at 9:44 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Randy Fox's comment


November 16 2011 at 10:13 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
K White

These free educational resources are neat, but not exactly what I had in mind when I clicked on this link. Oh, well. I hope I can find work when I graduate in May.

November 16 2011 at 7:15 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

The only problem with these ideas is at the end of college you have earned a degree sure you get the skills this other way but you will spend twice as long getting to where a degree gets you sooner. I worked as an assistant for 3 years doing my bosses job for half the pay 4 years and a degree later I make three times as much in a job I love. Some jobs now require a degree so make sure you look into what is needed to get the job you want, it would be a shame to go through all these online teachings and find out they were a waste.

November 16 2011 at 7:02 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

There's always the GI Bill, but that requires some effort prior to college.

November 16 2011 at 4:12 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mlaurel58's comment

Most college kids want it handed to them on a silver platter.

November 16 2011 at 10:15 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to savemycountry911's comment

or dont want to go overseas for an unjust of those two

November 16 2011 at 10:33 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down

Not Patriotic? Shameful.

November 16 2011 at 10:51 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down