The Scary High Cost of “Free” Courses

Written by

Paul Johnson

Free courses are an easy way to…

✅ Attract new sign-ups.
✅ Help people who don’t have the budget to learn what we teach.

Win-win, right? Well, not exactly…

In the past five years, I’ve seen thousands of courses published— paid and free. That’s enough to recognize the same pattern again and again:

Free courses don’t produce lifelong learners.

In fact, “free” works against creating lifelong learning relationships.

So before deciding to offer your course for free, take a moment and consider a few things.

(Before we do, let’s take off our teacher hat for a bit and put on our 🎩 business hat).

Free courses create freeloaders

Across thousands of courses and topic areas, we’ve seen that free courses yield significantly lower completion rates (often < 10%). In fact, about half of those who register for a free course never even start.

In contrast, paid courses — even inexpensive ones — yield much higher completion rates, satisfaction rates, and learning outcome achievement.

But that’s not all. What’s perhaps a bit more unexpected (and troubling) is what we call the “Free Course Trap.”

⛓ The Free Course Trap

Free courses become a trap because they inevitably keep learners from ever registering for another course, even when they report really liking the course they’re stuck in. What gives? We wondered the same thing, so we asked.

In a survey of hundreds of people who’d taken a free course but never purchased or completed another course, we mostly heard responses along these lines:

  • “I really like [school name] but I want to finish [free course] I’m in first.”
  • “I love my course, but just didn’t have time to finish it. So taking another one just doesn’t make sense for me right now.”
  • “I just haven’t had time to finish yet! I hope I will some day.”

In short, there was nothing wrong with the courses themselves. People loved them. So what went wrong?

🚨 “FREE” is like a big, red hot button

Have you ever picked up conference swag or some other free trinket and then wondered why in the world you took home something you didn’t really want? Well, you’re not alone. There’s a psychological reason why we humans grab free stuff:

For a full explanation and entertaining examples of this human flaw, check out Chapter 3 of the book “Predictably Irrational”.

It’s not so much about “free” or paid, but commitment. If your course is free, the only commitment you’re asking for is “I don’t want to miss out on this deal” and that’s usually not enough to sustain the hard work of learning something new.

A better way to think about free courses

It is possible to offer a course for free and create lifelong learners. The key is to get some kind of commitment signal up front. These signals …

  • Weed out the freeloaders,
  • Help those who join understand the value of what they’re receiving (price is the #1 value signal), and
  • Demonstrate a commitment to learn.

A few of our partners have successfully approached this issue with this tactic:

  1. Set a price that reflects the true value of the course.
  2. Right above the price, link to an application form anyone can fill out to get a “scholarship” price (often from the support of a grant, donor, etc.). This form can be very short, but should include a few questions that signal real commitment to learn the topic.
  3. Once they fill out the form, review it and send qualified applicants a free coupon code (this can also be automated).

Another scenario that we’ve seen work well is to offer free enrollment in a short, limited-time offer that includes some commitment to join a live event or submit a small project.

And I’m sure there are many other creative ways to cast a wide net with a free course but still avoid the Free Course Trap.

🍎 Now let’s put our teacher hats back on

When it comes down to it, it’s not really about free or paid courses. Paying money just happens to be a universal way of signaling value and creating commitment.

But from our perspective as teachers, thinking about pricing is more about understanding and meeting our learners where they are even before they sign up for our courses. It’s recognizing that –– regardless of how much they love “free” stuff –– they really need some type of buy-in to succeed in the long run.

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