Most students use StraighterLine to complete introductory courses, such as Economics 101, and they range from young adults who need to fulfill prerequisites before starting a two- or four-year college to adults focused on improving their résumés. The material is the same as any institution would offer in an online course, including assessments, tutoring, and the option to take a customized course.
Because StraighterLine doesn't need to pay for a campus, doesn't offer related student services, and doesn't have to deal with the red tape of accreditation, it can offer an online course closer to the price of what it actually costs to provide one. The company doesn't receive any state subsidies, and doesn't offer financial aid, but then again, it doesn't need to.
"Colleges have, forever, thought of themselves as the single provider of the full suite of services--whether that's social services, or library services, or advising or tutoring," says Burck Smith, CEO and founder of StraighterLine. "That made sense when it was all in a physical location. It doesn't make as much sense on the Internet."
HOW LOW CAN THE PRICE OF EDUCATION GO?
Nationwide, including in California, many public colleges and universities already offer full online degrees. But traditional institutions also tend to charge online tuition per semester, or per year, rather than per credit.
While elite institutions compete to see who can offer the most luxurious and comprehensive residential package, the new online innovators aim to provide a college education as cheaply as possible. That's important for aspiring college graduates at a time when college costs can saddle students with an onerous level of loan debt. Pacing students based on what they know, and using interactive online tools, can also help keep students engaged and up their chance of graduating on time. Just half of bachelor's degree candidates graduate in four years, and less than a third of associate's degree candidates graduate in three years, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
One of the first institutions to think about how education could be different online was Western Governors University, the brainchild of 19 governors who wanted to increase the capacity of state higher-education systems without spending more state money. Established in 1997, WGU pioneered what's known as a competency-based model.
"We actually measure what students know and can do, not how long they've spent in a seat," says Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University. Students move at their own pace, blasting through material they already know and slowing down to pore over the material they don't. The average time to graduation with a bachelor's degree is 35 months--two years faster than the national average--and retention is also higher than the national average for four-year universities.