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Breaking Down the Costs: Buying Individual Courses vs. Subscriptions

By Denton Zhou | Updated December 18, 2018 | First published December 13, 2018

Update 12/18/2018: We’ve updated parts of this post to reflect changes that edX made recently to its pricing policies.

Earlier this month, we wrote an article exploring the differences between freemium, paid, and subscription courses. In this follow up post, we analyze nearly 16,000 courses that fall under these three categories on OpenCourser to see what they really cost.

Two indicators

Of the almost 16,000 courses we track, over 6,300 are freemium or paid. To simplify things, we’ll group these together as “individual courses”. The remaining courses belong to subscription services.

For this analysis, we’ll also stick to just two metrics:

  • Average cost of each course
  • Average cost per hour of coursework

Average cost: individual courses

Our data of individual courses show that paying for one will set you back about $56.51 on average. This figure excludes 369 courses that cost below $5 and above $99.99 (two arbitrarily determined cutoffs for outliers). 

The chart below illustrates how these courses are distributed based on their prices.

Average cost of subscription courses

Getting an average for subscription courses requires two data points:

  • The length of each course
  • The amount of time a learner spends each week on courses

We have the first, but not the second, so we’ll have to make an assumption. For purposes of this analysis, we’ll assume that the average learner spends 8 hours each week on courses.

Next, we use these figures to derive a prorated cost. For example, let’s say you take a course that takes 16 hours to complete on a platform that charged $30 per month. You would need to spend two weeks (or half of a month) completing it, which, prorated against a full month, is $15.

Using this method, we find that the average subscription course costs $1.88.

For those keeping track, that’s a 30x factor of difference compared to the average cost of an individual course. What gives?

It turns out subscription courses are very short. Most are bit-sized, almost the size of a module or a single lecture of a larger individual course. To get an apples to apples comparison, we’ll also need to adjust our measurements to hold course lengths constant.

Cost per hour, a better comparison metric

The metric we turn to to accomplish this is “cost per hour of coursework”. This is a simple calculation, the sum of the cost of all courses divided by the sum of all lengths of courses.

Running the numbers, we find that individual courses cost $2.60 per hour of coursework. 

It would seem that subscriptions are much more cost efficient, but there’s another caveat. These figures require one last adjustment.

Adjusting for platforms’ varying definitions for “length”

Each platform has its own way of defining “length.” On platforms like Coursera and edX, instructors usually give an estimate for length that includes both lecture time and coursework. Compare that to subscription platforms like LinkedIn Learning and Treehouse where length is just a sum of the lengths of all videos in a course (Udemy, a non-subscription platform, also does this).

One easy way to adjust for this is to borrow a rule of thumb that many universities and colleges use. This rule states that students should spend 2-3 hours on coursework outside of lectures for each hour spent in the classroom.

This measure is especially pertinent to us because courses on Coursera and edX are mostly university backed and produced. It’s not inconceivable that instructors there would use this rule to help them produce length estimates.

If we use the ranges provided to us, we find that the gap in cost per hour of coursework between individual and subscription courses narrows. With the adjustment, individual courses have a cost per hour of coursework between $2.40 and $2.50 and subscription courses a range between $3.00 and $4.00.

The takeaway: which is better for your wallet?

Assuming you’re the average learner (spend 8 hours/week on online courses, 2-3 hours on coursework for each hour of lecture), then buying individual courses is much more cost effective. 

Based on our calculations, you end up paying a premium of 20% to as much as 66% by paying for a subscription over individual courses.

If you’ve read our previous post, this makes sense. Subscriptions offer much more flexibility and the freedom for you to learn from a huge library of courses. These convenience features justify the extra expense.

Of course, these whopping double-digit percentages show only one narrow case. Just by bumping the hours you spend each week on courses from 8 to 10-12, you could eliminate the “subscription premium” entirely. And if you can somehow find more time to spend on courses, then subscriptions actually turn out to be more economical than buying individual courses.

Who offers the least expensive courses? Most expensive?

At face value, the average cost of individual courses is most expensive for edX at $92.15 per course, followed by FutureLearn at $70.48 and Coursera at $58.10. When including only courses at or under $100, these averages change such that FutureLearn offers the most expensive courses at $67.89 per course, edX at a substantially lower $62.56, and Coursera at $56.76.

When using our “cost per hour of coursework” figure, almost all course platforms hover within +/- $0.50 of each other. The only exception is FutureLearn, which is substantially more costly at nearly double the median cost per hour of coursework. This applies both to when you include and exclude courses above $100.

Cost isn’t the only factor

Our cost analysis is designed to answer a simple question. At most, it should help set expectations about what you should get from a course given what you spend.

Learning from courses though doesn’t require you to optimize for value. In fact, focusing on getting the best “price per pound” from a course is probably counterproductive. 

Ultimately, cost is just one of many factors that go into picking a course. But if a course isn’t helping you learn, it doesn’t matter how inexpensive (or free) it is. Taking a course just based on its course might cause you to learn less effectively, wasting your time.

In addition to cost, we recommend looking at a course’s other qualities, We’ve written a post that covers how you can inspect a course’s description, attributes, stated objectives, and other qualities that can help you decide if it’s a good fit.

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