Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Boost in Online Money Courses

Since September's financial meltdown, community colleges and universities offering free personal-finance courses online have seen a sharp increase in enrollment.

Many people are turning to the more than 180 business courses offered through the OpenCourseWare Consortium -- a group of about 250 universities world-wide, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of California-Irvine. These courses aren't exactly classes, but they offer free access to online syllabi and study materials, along with lecture notes and exams.

[Online Courses] Associated Press

An MIT initiative called OpenCourseWare offers business courses online.

One course, "Fundamentals of Financial Planning," has seen a 27% increase in traffic since September, according to the school. With 48,000 viewers, it has become the most popular of the University of California-Irvine's OpenCourseWare offerings, the school says. Class takers are given worksheets and assessments to help them negotiate topics like college planning and retirement savings, says Gary Matkin, dean of continuing education. "It's a cross between a reference and a learning experience," says Mr. Matkin. As more people are affected by the downturn, he expects the number of course takers to grow.

Other OpenCourseWare business offerings, like those provided by MIT's Sloan School of Management, have also seen an increase, says Steve Carson, external relations director for MIT OpenCourseWare. The most popular courses are those that focus on economic theory and the latest developments in the financial world, he says. Mr. Carson says he's seen a 30% attendance increase in a number of business-related courses. Starting in October, about 225 users daily downloaded several of the school's macroeconomics courses, up from about 150 a day before that, says Mr. Carson.

Finance 101

Groups that offer low-cost or free courses: A quick dose of budgeting advice through podcasts and webinars Provides training modules and reading materials about banking and homeownership A directory of OpenCourseWare materials with hundreds of business courses from top universities Focused on solving personal finance dilemmas at all life stages Low-cost programs on family financial management, budgeting, debt management, and bankruptcy.

Vakul Talwar, an IT project manager at GE Capital, a unit of General Electric Co., in Melbourne, Australia, says he finished reading the required materials for an MIT course on real-estate economics several weeks ago after seeing how the "real estate market was going rock bottom in the U.S." Mr. Talwar, 27 years old, likes the open courses, which he found several years ago through an Internet search.

Financial literacy courses in other formats are also gaining ground. Some 43% of the course traffic for the year came in the last three months of 2008 for free webinars from the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta, according to spokesman John McJosh. Popular courses included those on reducing spending, and ways of saving and creating a priority spending plan. And 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy, a free online financial literacy Web site run by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, saw a 43% increase in traffic for 2008, says media relations manager Mitchell Slepian.

Apopka, Fla., resident Paul Seago recently paid $99 for David Ramsey's Financial Peace University, a 13-week video-based financial literacy program that was offered at his church. Mr. Seago, 38, says participants had to break into two groups because of over-enrollment. He says the course helped him learn how to stay out of debt. "When you hear about all these layoffs, it's really nice to have a plan that we're working towards," says Mr. Seago. Nationally, demand for the David Ramsey programs increased 37% over January of last year.

Clare Stenstrom, a principal with Bourne Stenstrom Lent Asset Management, helps oversee a pro-bono financial planning course at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She says the class sizes have almost doubled since spring of 2008. And Ms. Stenstrom has noticed that many who attend the free twice-per-month course, covering subjects like investing and retirement, are staying late to ask questions and asking friends to tag along.

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