Free online courses from prestigious universities are increasingly popular.

With college tuition escalating to increasingly unaffordable heights, Americans seem to be losing faith in the value of a degree: A new survey finds that just 57 percent of adults believe college to be a good investment, a steep decline from the 81 percent who said the same four years ago. At the same time, though, people without a degree are falling behind—unemployment among U.S. high school graduates is more than twice that of college grads. But now, students of any age and income bracket, anywhere in the world, have an intriguing alternative to traditional higher education: MOOCs, or Massively Open Online Courses, the term coined for free online classes from top-tier universities, generally taught by the same professors who teach on campus.

There’s been an explosion of offerings and ideas in this space. The latest to set sail is edX, a joint venture between Harvard and MIT set to launch this fall. Both MIT and Stanford University introduced similar programs on their own last year. And Coursera, a California company with venture-capital funding, just announced agreements to host video courses from a dozen highly ranked universities, such as the University of Virginia, Duke and Caltech. Udacity, started by three Stanford-affiliated artificial-intelligence experts, offers 11 free college-level online courses. Some institutions are forming consortiums to help bring down costs, such as the New Paradigm Initiative, which provides online courses to be shared among 16 liberal-arts colleges in the Southern U.S.

Students who submit coursework qualify for completion certificates rather than degrees. Will we see the rise of a DIY approach to higher education that de-emphasizes the degree? The timing may be perfect: The idea that college may not be right for everybody is catching on, even among education experts. And with tuitions doubling every nine years (they’re rising on average 8 percent a year), the burden of student debt is becoming an ever bigger concern, just as public universities bump up fees due to state budget cuts. Meanwhile, trust in big institutions keeps declining, with many people preferring to take their own independent route.