100th Partner College – The Tipping Point?

100th Partner College – The Tipping Point?
Burck Smith

A little over five years ago, I founded StraighterLine to empower students to affordably earn their college degree. At the time, college tuition was rising four times the rate of inflation, median family asset value was dropping by a third, and more job postings than ever required a degree. In short, a degree was more necessary, more expensive and students had less ability to pay. The story remains much the same today.

This wasn’t, and isn’t, normal. With nearly 1/3 of college students taking at least one online class and nearly 90% of colleges offering online courses, prices should fall like they have in every other industry that has incorporated online delivery. But this has not been the case.

So, StraighterLine was started to deliver on the low-cost opportunities available through online course delivery by introducing a $99 a month membership for students. By providing low-cost and convenient access to general education courses guaranteed to transfer to accredited colleges and universities in our partner network, StraighterLine has made the choice to work with traditional higher education rather than being in competition with it.

Some insight into our value proposition we provide to both students and colleges:

  • Course quality matters. Online, you don’t need to be a college to offer a college course.  In fact, non-colleges are increasingly offering online courses that are better than those offered by colleges.
  • Lowering individual course costs increases degree accessibility. By not offering all the elements of a college, our course prices can reflect their cost of delivery rather than being used to subsidize other parts of the college.
  • Guaranteed transfer of credit.  The quality of our online courses are such that our partner colleges guarantee acceptance of credit through course-to-course articulation agreements.

And it worked. In StraighterLine’s first year, we offered four courses (College Algebra, English Composition, Microeconomics and Macroeconomics), had 4 partner colleges and less than 100 students. At the time, our educational model of self-paced, highly-supported online courses was roundly criticized as being “too different” from the traditional campus-based educational model.

Fast forward to 2016 and StraighterLine has enrolled nearly 50,000 students, has guaranteed credit transfer agreements to 100 colleges, offers 60 courses, and has been through 6 ACE Credit recommendation reviews. Our teaching model now has a name—Competency-Based Education (CBE)--which is being promoted by the federal Department of Education. To date, StraighterLine has saved students and taxpayers well over $100 million.

We’ve learned a lot along the way:

  • We discovered that, despite creating guaranteed credit transfer pathways, students still need assurance about what will and won’t transfer (colleges don’t make it easy). So, we hired a team of enrollment counselors to help students navigate the credit transfer process.
  • We learned that trust in our courses was critical for both our partner colleges and our students. So, we required online proctoring starting in 2012 and had psychometrically valid and reliable assessments built for our courses.
  • We learned that lowering the risk of starting college was as important as lowering the price. So, we started a free trial and created a cancel-anytime monthly subscription.
  • We learned that many students start online courses with good intentions, but “life gets in the way.” With low-risk pathways to enrollment, these students aren’t saddled with debt and no degree.

We’ve also steadily improved the online student experience:

  • We built a new student portal called MyLine.
  • We added advisors to help students navigate their courses.
  • We constantly test new courseware providers to find the most engaging and effective content.
  • We created a “scholarship program” where willing colleges--over 20 to date--will provide additional tuition discounts to students that complete four or more of our courses, allowing students to save up to 60% on their college degree.

As a result of these efforts, we’re proud that StraighterLine has become the “face” of “good proprietary education” and is now playing a significant role in getting the Department of Education to consider Title IV support for non-traditional sources of learning through its multiple pathways initiative.

All the while, we’ve expanded our partner college network to 100 colleges (and growing).

One of my favorite quotes is from Herb Stein, the Chair of the Council for Economic Advisors to two presidents who once said, “if something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” Colleges can’t continue to raise their prices for online courses while the cost of delivery falls. As students increasingly choose equivalent, lower-priced options, colleges and policymakers will follow. We’re proud to have started the process.

Ready to get started? Sign up for a free trial today!

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