It’s a provocative concept: StraighterLine, based in Alexandria, sells higher education on value rather than pedigree. Sure, you could take the same general-education courses at Harvard or the University of Virginia. But these are broad survey courses, generally taught the same way everywhere, in vast lecture halls. Yet, the students pay the same steep tuition to attend them as for high-level seminars. In fact, colleges count on generous profit margins from gen-ed courses to subsidize the comparatively high costs of smaller, more specialized classes.
With StraighterLine, you could complete the first year of college for a few hundred dollars and transfer the credits in to a four-year institution.
But are StraighterLine courses any good?
Last December, the publication Inside Higher Ed published a stinging critique of the StraighterLine method based on the personal experiences of a reporter who took one of Burck Smith's courses.
The reporter took ECON 101. Here is an excerpt of what she found:
Exacerbating the apparent irrelevance of the lesson materials is their sloppiness in both structure and content. Grammatical and typographical errors like “ressecion,” “Ben Bernake,” and “camp councilor,” among many others, occur with distracting frequency. Text boxes often appear where they shouldn’t, or don’t say what they should; hovering over the highlighted keyword “depression” on one slide brings up a text box reading only “insert definition.” A table showing supply curve determinants is entitled “Approximate Absolute Thresholds for Various Senses.” A slide about the Phillips Curve notes that “According to this model, if unemployment and inflation have a stable, inverse relationship. Growth in the economy brings with it inflation.”
Now, half a year later, Smith has released an independent survey that appears to reaffirm some of the principals of StraighterLine. The results aren’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the company, but they suggest that students at least get what they paid for.
Hezel Associates attempted to survey 895 students who had completed StraighterLine courses and 439 non-completers. A little over 10 percent responded.
Students reported they were more satisfied with StraighterLine than with any other form of higher education they had attempted. Margins of satisfaction varied: students who had taken other online courses heavily favored StraighterLine, with 90 percent reporting that it was as good or better. Eighty percent found Burck Smith’s company as good or better than community college courses. Roughly the same share said the courses were as good or better than traditional college courses.
Survey respondents gave StraighterLine high marks for convenience, and, of course, cost.
Rigor? Not so much. Nearly two-fifths of students who had taken both StraighterLine and traditional college courses found the traditional courses more rigorous, and almost no one in that group found StraighterLine more rigorous. StraighterLine courses are roughly equivalent in rigor to community college and online courses, according to the survey respondents.
[Update: Smith responded to this point in a comment. Here it is, lightly edited:
That's a strange take on rigor. More than 60% of students said that StraighterLine was equal to or better than comparable courses at a four -year college. The vast majority say that StraighterLine courses are equal to or better than those offered at a two-year college or online -- which four-year colleges both offer and recognize. That seems like a validation of equal rigor at a fraction of the price. This survey complements the many other third-party reviews to which StraighterLine courses have been submitted. Perhaps a more appropriate question would be, What kind of information would convince you of the rigor of the courses?]
StraighterLine students tend to be older and otherwise more diverse than traditional college students. And most have attended two or more colleges; they tend to view college not as a campus so much as a collection of credits. To Smith, that is the future of higher education.