Workers in Oakland and San Francisco have a chance to earn free college degrees online, if their companies agree to help out.

On Thursday, the for-profit UniversityNow is announcing a free undergraduate business degree through one of its two universities, books and materials included.

But the 2-year-old company doesn't have traditional college prospects in mind. The free-degree offer applies for now to anyone working in Oakland, Sacramento or San Francisco whose employer provides tuition assistance of any amount.

The College Works program, endorsed by the three cities' mayors, is expected to expand uNow's enrollment of about 600 students.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said she hoped the city's businesses would use the opportunity to invest in their workers, as she plans to do.

"Forward-looking companies really benefit when they grow their own employees and raise their standards," she said.

The school's offer is more than a marketing strategy, said CEO Gene Wade. Working adults, he said, too often are left out of discussions about higher education, the need for more highly skilled workers and the crippling student loan debt.

People 30 and older carried $610 billion in college loan debt by early 2012, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

"People are getting hosed, and we're saying we can do something to stop the problem," Wade said. "It's the right thing to do."

UniversityNow's announcement comes as millions around the world are signing up for free, so-called massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

But so far, most of those courses, taught by university professors, are offered without credit, and few low-cost online degree programs exist. An online bachelor's degree from Kaplan University, for instance, costs about $70,000. A full-time student at uNow's Patten University can earn a degree for about $10,000.

After years of cutbacks in public colleges and universities, UniversityNow seems to be "filling an extreme market need," said Joshua Kim, director of learning and technology in Dartmouth College's Masters in Health Care Delivery Science program.

UniversityNow's innovation and experimentation offer lessons in efficiency, said Kim, who writes a technology column for the publication Inside Higher Ed.

"Low-cost players will force change, and needed change," Kim said.

Enrolling at a local state university didn't seem tenable to Christopher Noyes, a 51-year-old former truck driver, mechanic and construction worker who wants to go into management.

"More than likely I'm going to be working until I'm 75," said the Oregon resident who's looking for less strenuous work as he ages. "The physical demands of driving over the road are pretty intense."

Noyes lives near a state university and considered going there. But he figured it would set him back $9,000 a year, forcing him to take loans just as he's trying to save for retirement.

Now, Noyes is taking English composition, introduction to computers and introduction to business through New Charter University, owned by uNow.

He pays about $800 for each four-month term, an amount he can afford. It involves "an awful lot of reading," he said. But, he regularly communicates with his instructors, whom he finds encouraging, and he likes the flexibility of his schedule and the self-paced coursework.

Undergraduates at UniversityNow's New Charter University pay $199 a month for as many courses as they wish to take. Those at Patten University, an accredited Oakland college uNow acquired this year, pay $329. Students from Patten can transfer their credits to traditional universities, if they wish, or earn degrees.

Neither uNow nor its students receive federal grants or other funding, said Wade, but the company has raised $24 million in grants and investments.

"Under our model, you don't need student loans," he said.

UniversityNow and the Salt Lake City-based Western Governors University (tuition $481 per month) may be among the few low-cost programs available -- but not for long, Wade said.

"You're about to see a wave of low-cost competition hit the market pretty soon."

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.

college works program
College Works offers some Bay Area workers the chance to earn an associate's or bachelor's degree in business at no cost, through UniversityNow, an online education startup based in San Francisco.
Who's eligible: Workers in Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento whose employers make a donation of any amount. UniversityNow covers the remaining cost, including books.
Degrees available: Associate's in general business studies; bachelor's in leadership and in general business management/leadership
Details: www.unow.com/collegeworks