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StraighterLine.com: Revolutionizing Higher Education?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

StraighterLine.com’s website touts the two-year-old online education provider as a "revolutionizing force in education." They aim to accomplish this ambitious goal by providing less expensive introductory-level course options with easily transferrable credits. A DYK box on their home page asks potentially interested parties if they were aware that their freshman year of college could cost less than $1,000. But just what is StraighterLine.com? Do classes really cost $99 a month?  Do course credits taken through them really transfer that easily? Is it a legitimate source of online learning? And, most importantly, will it revolutionize higher education?


(StraighterLine.com)

What is StraighterLine.com?
StraighterLine.com largely follows the traditional self-paced, online learning model of providing less expensive college credits by eliminating much of the overhead associated with attending a residential college. The focus here is on allowing students to replace a large percentage of the general education and required first-year courses with low-cost online classes. StraighterLine CEO  Burck Smith explains that their objective is to replace large lecture-style classes with his company’s offerings at a cost that is more in-line with the actual cost of running such a class. At some institutions, students may pay $2,000 for such classes, while those classes may only cost the university $100 per student to teach, Smith explains in this video introduction:

A Legitimate Source of Online Learning?
It does appear that StraighterLine.com provides high-quality educational content as its two-dozen courses have been recommended by the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit). The company itself cannot be accredited, however as it does not offer any degree programs, focusing instead on first-year, introductory-level classes. The course content is, according to Smith, of a high quality, with materials developed by McGraw-Hill, a well-known publisher of textbooks and academic magazines. An independently conducted survey of StraighterLine alumni revealed that more than 75% found their courses to be as rigorous as other online classes they had taken, and nearly two-thirds found them as good as face-to-face classes (Lipka, Sept. 18, 2011). Students enrolled in StraighterLine courses also have limited access to on-demand online educators  at no additional cost through one of Smith’s other companies, SmartThinking. The ACE recommendation and the number of reputable institutions who have accepted course credits from StraighterLine speak well of its academic quality. In addition, other reviews of the company have been mainly positive, such as this story in Washington Monthly.

Do classes really cost $99 a month? 
This is where StraighterLine can be a significant benefit to students.  The strict answer to this question is "yes," but also "no." Right off, the $99 per month price tag does not include a $39 fee for each course started. Here is the entire fee breakdown:

  • $99/month for unlimited classes, each requiring an additional $39 fee, plus the costs of textbooks.
  • Individual courses can be taken for $399 each, plus the cost of textbooks.
  • $999 for an entire freshman year of college, plus the cost of books – this option includes up to ten college-level courses in a 12-month period.

There is no federal financial aid available for StraighterLine students. However, the article from Washington Monthly examined one StraighterLine learner and calculated her actual cost savings. The article stated that, in two months, the student completed four courses for a cost of less than $200. The same courses would have cost her more than $2,700 at a regional university, $4,200 at Kaplan University, and $6,300 at the University of Phoenix (Washington Monthly, Oct. 2009). These numbers represent substantial savings on all accounts, even once you include the $39 fee and the cost of books. These prices potentially put at least a portion of a college education within reach of more people.

Do course credits taken through them really transfer that easily?
Credits from StraighterLine courses only automatically transfer to partner institutions, and that list is diminishing rapidly as the model has not worked out for several of the original universities who signed on, such as Fort Hays State University, the University of Akron, and Assumption College, These universities initially signed on as partners believing that the model would attract students to their campuses after the initial online period. However, only 3 of 518 students who were awarded transfer credit at Fort Hays ever enrolled on the campus (Lipka, Sept. 18, 2011). There is, however, an ever-expanding list of non-partner schools who “have accepted one or more StraighterLine courses for transfer credit” because of the ACE recommendations and the list of partner schools who already accept them. The list is impressive and contains some high-powered universities such as, Columbia, George Washington, Ohio State, Stanford University School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, and several members of the Cal State system. However, this list has not been verified by StraighterLine.com, and at least one institution has publically questioned their inclusion.

Given the overall high quality of the courses, and the strength of several of the institutions who have accepted their courses for credit, a convincing argument can be made for acceptance of StraighterLine credits at most institutions. Yet it would always be advisable to verify this with an admissions officer or the registrar at your institution of choice prior to signing up for courses online.

Will it Revolutionize Higher Education?
This is a tough call. There has been some pushback against the company from within higher education, but Smith characterizes those critiques as based on conflicts of interest. According to Smith, the institutions that have severed ties with StraighterLine, also have online offerings of their own that would be negatively financially impacted by accepting the low cost alternatives (Lipska, Sept. 18, 2011). But one thing is for certain – Smith is a man with a plan, and he has recently taken to lobbying state lawmakers around the country to force public institutions to accept lower-cost college alternatives as transfer credits in their schools. If capitalist models hold true, and a lower-price alternative that is equal to other options is present and barriers to its acceptance are removed, this well could be the start of a higher education revolution. If the idea does become more widely accepted and credit transfer becomes more routine, look for a rapid proliferation of these low-cost alternatives, including some that will offer full degrees.