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Online courses can reduce the costly sting of college

Burck Smith of StraighterLine.
Burck Smith of StraighterLine. (Gerald Martineau For The Washington Post)

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010

Inessa Volkonidina had taken precalculus once and dropped it. She needed to take it again, and quickly, to fulfill a graduation requirement at Long Island University. She went online and found a company with an odd name, StraighterLine, that offered the course on even odder terms: $99 a month.

She thought it might be a scam. But StraighterLine, based in Alexandria, is a serious education company and a force that could disrupt half a millennium of higher-education tradition. The site offers students as many general-education courses as they care to take for a flat monthly fee, plus $39 per course. As college tuitions go, it is more on the scale of a cable bill.

The courses, standard freshman fare such as algebra, are cash cows for traditional schools, taught to students by the hundreds in vast lecture halls. They generate handsome profits to support more costly operations on campus.

General-education courses "comprise about one-third of all enrollment" in higher education, said Burck Smith, the company's founder, "and they don't cost colleges very much to deliver."

Smith is an entrepreneur and self-styled educational futurist, educated at Williams College and Harvard, intent on using the personal computer and the Internet to offer college coursework more affordably than it has been offered before.

"College algebra is a commodity," said Smith, 39.

Some scholars think Smith and his business model could seed a movement that reorders the higher-education industry, with students shopping online for individual courses rather than enrolling in one bricks-and-mortar school for four years. Tuition would decrease as technology lowers the cost.

But the company has been forced to battle for academic credibility. It cannot earn accreditation because it is not a school. Instead, it has struck deals with several "partner" colleges that accept StraighterLine courses for credit, which students can then transfer elsewhere. StraighterLine courses also are approved by the American Council on Education, another pathway to transfer credit.

Industry leaders say Smith's company could pose a welcome challenge but not a threat to prestigious bricks-and-mortar institutions. StraighterLine is part of an exploding industry in online, for-profit education that has yet to diminish traditional college enrollment, mostly because the market keeps growing.

"It's good for students, and these sorts of things do force traditional universities to rethink the things they do," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents college presidents.

Volkonidina, 21, retook precalculus from StraighterLine during a month-long winter break. "I took a deep breath and I went for it," she said. "My school, I believe it's $830-something for one credit," she said. "Here, for four credits, I paid $100."

Smith, raised in Baltimore, is a product of the academy he seeks to upend. He attended Friends School of Baltimore, a college preparatory school, and says he treasured his time at Williams and Harvard. He doesn't see StraighterLine competing against U.S. colleges with residential populations and name brands.


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© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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