If you’re familiar with MOOCs, you might already know these massive open courses typically don’t grant college credit. What you might not know yet is how many students are nonetheless using MOOCs to advance their careers.

The History of MOOCs

A MOOC is a “massive open online course.” These uncapped online courses are usually offered for free by traditional, often prestigious, universities – but the catch is that passing them confers no college credit. For years, you could take courses taught by world-class instructors at Ivy League and other elite institutions at no cost, but you couldn’t use them to earn a degree.

However, just because MOOCs aren’t a part of the path to earning a degree doesn’t mean they hold no value. Besides offering opportunity to those who want to learn just for the sake of learning, studies show that MOOCs are increasingly being used for career advancement, The Washington Post reported. In fact, more than half of MOOC students surveyed listed career advancement as their reason for enrolling in the course.

It’s not just wishful thinking. One third of students taking MOOCs to advance their career had seen a promotion, raise or other noticeable career benefit as a result of their studies, The Washington Post reported. Even those who didn’t experience career advancement as a direct result of taking the course reported feeling better prepared to succeed in their current role or to find a new job. The change was especially pronounced among students who didn’t already have a college degree.

The Future of MOOCs: Certificates and Credentials

Just because MOOCs haven’t historically led to earning a college degree doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. Already, some schools are taking steps in that direction. Two popular platforms that host MOOCs, Coursera and edX, already offer a certificate option, according to The Washington Post. Students can pay a fee, often just a few hundred dollars or less, to receive a certificate that proves that they completed coursework in a subject area. In October 2015, one prestigious school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), announced plans to offer a “MicroMaster’s” credential through its MOOCs in the subject of supply chain management, The Washington Post reported.

MOOCs probably won’t replace online college degree programs – or, for that matter, traditional on-campus studies – anytime soon, and they’re not the right choice for every student. However, they do offer exciting possibilities for students in certain situations. For example, imagine if you could complete potentially expensive course prerequisites through MOOCs. You could save thousands of dollars by taking free open classes and spending just a few hundred dollars to document that you completed the courses. In fact, 18 percent of MOOC students who listed their reason for enrollment as academic have used their experience to fulfill prerequisites or even earn college credit, according to The Washington Post. Used strategically, MOOCs that offer certificate and other credentials for a relatively small fee could make college more affordable.