Knowledge vs. Degree/Certificate
I'm asking for a friend, you know.
Let's say you're short on money and scholarships and are thinking: I have the choice between taking free classes from well know university, but with no credit or degree (many schools are doing this, very nice) VS. taking the same classes from a very inexpensive school that no-one has heard about or if they have it wasn't a good report (i.e. degree mill reputation), what would you do?
Option 1 in more detail:
Subject X Topic 1 from Big School A, no grades, no credit, just accessing the class free online
Subject X Topic 2 from Big School B, no grades, no credit, just accessing the class free online
Subject X Topic 3 from Big School C, no grades, no credit, just accessing the class free online
Option 2 in more detail:
Degree in Subject X from lesser know school with questionable (at least in some people's eyes) reputation and accreditation. You get grades, you attend online but are required to turn in papers, do projects, have them reviewed by teachers.
If the school isn't in good standing with a regional (not national) accreditation organization I would not spend my money. In my niche industry diploma mills are a red flag. If we have someone we like who has one on their CV, we have them take it off before sending to a client because no degree is better than one from some of these schools. We encounter this a lot from former military who were advised to get these quicky degrees and then we have to tell them we can't have these on their paperwork.
For a general degree for employment, as well as training for a lot of different fields, the local 2-year college is often a better option for someone with little previous education in a field. There are some odd fields that require a certification with training only at those sketchy schools (veterinary technician is one I know of), but going part time at a smaller 2 or 4 year state school is usually not that expensive.
I tend to think a lot of this decision depends on what you're studying and what your eventual goal is.
If you're studying something as a way to get a job, what does that industry expect? Are you going to be limited by not having "proof"? (degree, certificate, etc.) If you're applying for a job, is a degree a basic requirement? My field -- web design/programming -- doesn't necessarily require a degree as long as you can prove you know your stuff, so being self taught is a lot less of an issue.
How easy is it to prove your knowledge in your area of study? Can you demonstrate your skill though some sort of portfolio of work?
In general, I'd probably go with the certificate/degree if you're looking for a job, and free online classes if it's more of a hobby or you already have a degree in the field of study. At least in my view, the free online classes may be great (and they may even be taught better depending on the professor if the college is more prestigious) but they don't really prove that you know anything or put in actual work. I would view that as more of padding your resume than proof of anything.
I would work backwards....identify the job you want, figure out the requirements of getting hired into that job (does it require a degree? What kind of credentials and experience are set as the minimum for the role?). Anything that doesn't directly contribute to meeting those minimum requirements are probably not the best use of your time and/or money. If a non credit course is directly required for landing your target job, then great, go for it. If not I would skip it. My guess is the non credit courses really won't help you land a specific job. IMHO education should be about the career it leads you to and not just education for the sake of education (unless you are almost ready to retire like me, then education takes on a different dimension).
Yes, all of the above. You obviously aren't obligated to disclose this to random people on the internet. But what matters is what you do, what you intend to do, and what the people who hold the power to allow you to do that thing consider valuable. A good online place to get this info is probably whatever subreddit exists for the specific occupation you are interested in. You'll get a variety of insights like the one that @jenmas gives upthread about pitfalls to avoid and things that will look good.