Arizona State University has started an education initiative that may prove to be the first of a number of fundamental innovations in the way educational system is organized and perceived since Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) started appearing en masse in 2011-2012.

The idea is simple: traditionally, in order to get college education, a student should first meet certain requirements, get admitted to the college and pay tuition fee. ASU turns this scheme upside down: what if give everybody an opportunity to take an online course for an affordable fee, try it out and then decide if he or she wants to pay the entire tuition to finally get a diploma?

This approach will, hopefully, encourage more people to enroll, disseminate knowledge and provide for a more affordable education, in the same vein as other campaigns aimed at promoting higher education, like, for example, laptop programs available in many American universities. If a number of colleges consider it a good idea to attract additional students by giving them an opportunity to study online and go as far as provide free or discounted laptops for the purpose, why not give other kinds of incentives as well?

ASU plans to offer its freshman courses via a popular non-profit MOOC website edX. Just like all the other courses spread with the help of these medium, they will be free of charge – anybody will be able to tap in and listen to any of them. There is, however, one added opportunity – a student may pay a small fee for being identified, which allows him or her to take a real exam by the end of education – and in case of passing it, he or she may pay tuition and get official credits.

This system not only allows for a much more flexible approach to education, but is also considerably cheaper, amounting to about 50 percent of what in-state students have to pay and 20 percent of out-of-state students’ expenses. And of course, even those who opt out of paying can benefit from getting an unofficial, but still an education in a prestigious university which will help them in future.

ASU may not offer free laptops (preferring standardized workstations located on the grounds), but this initiative certainly looks promising. Perhaps we are even witnessing a new beginning that will turn into mainstream educational practice in a few years.