In a story Monday in The Washington Post, higher-education scribe Jon Marcus addresses a small but growing community of companies that are offering college coursework at bargain-basement prices., a Washington-based nonprofit founded by entrepreneur Michael Saylor, is offering 200 online college courses for free.

Peer-to-Peer University, or P2PU, offers free online courses with the backing of the Hewlett Foundation and Mozilla, the company responsible for the Firefox Web browser.

Other operations provide courses for a negligible fee.

University of the People, a Pasadena, Calif., nonprofit, offers college coursework to about 1,000 students worldwide essentially for free. The only charge is a onetime application fee of $10 to $50, which varies according to the comparative wealth of the student’s home nation.

And StraighterLine, a for-profit company launched in Washington by a Williams College graduate, offers general education courses for a flat fee of $99 a month.

All four of those colleges together probably educate fewer students than, say, Penn State does alone. But their very existence poses a formidable challenge to the status quo. The status quo, in this case, is general-education coursework taught in vast lecture halls or in faceless online sessions to students who pay many thousands of dollars for the privilege to attend.

Burck Smith, founder of StraighterLine, told me this week that his company will begin offering the Collegiate Learning Assessment to its students. The CLA is a standardized test that measures critical-thinking skills. Many traditional universities are afraid to administer it, so the fact that Smith is embracing the test indicates that his company is comfortable in the glare of accountability.