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Sweden - home of Ikea. And free university education! Unbelievable, but true. You can get a free bachelor's or master's degree from any Swedish university. You don't even have to be a Swedish or European Union citizen - all you have to do is apply, get accepted - and start learning!
Of course, it helps if you know Swedish. And it helps even more if you can go to Sweden to attend classes. But it's not a requirement, strictly speaking. Some Swedish schools have on-line "distance learning" programs (see http://www.lu.se/o.o.i.s/1728 and http://www.netuniversity.se/en, among others). All of the schools involved offer at least some courses - including materials - in English. But if you do come across a page in Swedish, just surf on to http://www.translation-guide.com/free_online_translations.htm and paste your text into the Swedish-English translator to get the gist of what they're talking about.
But isn't there anything available in the good old US of A, on-line, of course?
Indeed there is, although only Sweden provides freebies. The Get Educated site (http://www.geteducated.com) provides a wealth of information about on-line education and degrees provided by regionally accredited US colleges and universities (accreditation, a much used but little understood term, is explained cogently at http://www.uceadirectory.org/accreditation.html). Get Educated has links to both undergraduate and graduate on-line degrees, and you can download a whole series of e-books with specific information about the degree you're interested in - complete with rankings, requirements and even prices!
One thing to beware of in the on-line education game are "degree mills," institutions that hand out degrees without accreditation or in exchange for "life experience" resumes - and a pile of cash, of course. John Bear is perhaps the world's top expert on distance higher education, and at http://www.quackwatch.org/04ConsumerEducation/dm0.html, he'll tell you all you need to know in order to avoid getting ripped off.
For serious students who know a lot about a subject - having had lots of hands-on experience - why not get a degree the easy way, bypassing class time or even on-line curricula. All you have to do is take a test!
According to http://bain4weeks.com, there are several institutions in the US that will give you a degree based on how well you do on a series of on-line and in-person tests, in the context of several US programs that give course credit at accredited institutions, such as the CLEP program (http://www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/clep/about.html). All you have to do is show up and take the test - and with all the university extension programs in this country, it's likely that you'd be able to set up a local test-taking appointment if you needed to. CLEPs are not free, but using them to get a degree, or even just course credit, will save you big over "regular" tuition - in time and money.
Naturally, you'll want to bone up on your stuff before committing to any tests - and you can take high-level college courses on your own, not in the context of a specific degree program, for free - by using the Open Courseware Finder (http://opencontent.org/ocwfinder). Several US schools (most notably MIT) allow Web users to "audit" courses that have been given to paying customers - for free! Use the finder to search for courses in dozens of degree disciplines - and when you're done, you'll be ready for test day!
What about textbooks? Glad you asked! As all of us who have kids in school know the textbook scandal - where you have to buy new "editions" of books every year, even if 98 percent of it hasn't changed.
While many textbooks are mandated by whatever authority is in charge of the educational system in your locality, there often is some leeway in what specific texts are assigned - and if the teacher you are working with is forward-thinking, you might be able to convince him/her to assign a freely or cheaply accessible textbook. Even if you are stuck buying a book, there's no rule that says you can't beef up on your knowledge with non-standard texts.
The fellow who runs Textbook Revolution (http://textbookrevolution.org) knows where you're coming from, and has scoured the Internet to round up all the free textbook sources available. And there are more available than you might think, with an emphasis on "hard" subjects like math, chemistry, biology, etc. Texts range from high school to graduate level, and it's a great resource if you're studying for a degree on-line, running a home schooling project or taking courses for college credits. Free (or cheaper) degrees, free courses, free books - considering the state of public education, it's an idea who's time has arrived!