StraighterLine and the Changing Model of Higher Education

Yesterday we looked at Smarterer, a crowdsourced platform that allows users to present their experience in certain skills to potential employers. But what about taking care of that field on your résumé listing where you went to college? As discussed in the earlier post, employers these days have just a few seconds to scan a résumé, and one of the first things they look at is where the applicant went to college.

StraighterLine is one option that individuals looking for an alternative to traditional four-year institutions might consider. It’s an innovative new way for students to complete required college courses by building on the expertise of its educators and partners.

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “A college degree is the new high school diploma.” No? You haven’t heard that one? Well trust me, a lot of 20-somethings are saying it these days. As the price of college goes up and the number of available jobs goes down, the value of a college degree loses much of its clarity. 

This sponsors the growth of online education and for-profit schools. John Chubb and Terry Moe wrote in the Wall Street Journal that for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix have doubled their share of the U.S. higher education market in just the last ten years by integrating cheap online courses into their curricula. This number is going nowhere but up, and StraighterLine has positioned itself to ride it all the way to the top. As a platform through which students can take courses at participating colleges and universities for far less money than traditional four-year institution courses, StraighterLine looks like a sweet deal. Customers can pay $99 a month plus $39 per course, and then earn enough college credit to obtain a degree.

There are plenty of great-sounding words on StraighterLine’s homepage. (“Fast Company named us one of the ‘10 Most Innovative Companies in Education’ “ … “Students give StraighterLine an A+” … “90% say we’re more affordable”) Obviously the company is working hard to sell itself. The question I have is, does it even need to? It seems that the very model of higher education is moving to an online presence, and the state of the economy provides all the advertisements customers need in order to be convinced of that fact. In a YouTube video on the About Us section, founder and CEO Burck Smith says his company aims to bring the “concept of value back to higher education.” In other words, more bang for your buck. When graduates of four-year universities are competing for the same blue-collar jobs as those with degrees from online universities (or those with no degree at all), the amount of money one pays for college becomes a subject of consideration.

Kevin Carey of Washington Monthly writes in his article featuring an interview with StraighterLine founder Burck Smith, “Rather than students being tethered to ivy-covered quads or an anonymous commuter campus, Smith envisions a world where they can seamlessly assemble credits and degrees from multiple online providers, each specializing in certain subjects and—most importantly—fiercely competing on price. Smith himself may be the person who revolutionizes the university, or he may not be. But someone with the means and vision to fundamentally reorder the way students experience and pay for higher education is bound to emerge.”

A university is in the information business. And information is becoming cheaper every day. The online model of education is becoming an amorphous mass with an uncertain future. The aformentioned Wall Street Journal article says “online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)—as has happened in every other industry—making schools much more productive.” Think of the mechanized assembly lines at Ford factories instead of rows of laborers building Model Ts by hand.

The importance of higher education will likely never extinguish, but the methods by which it is acquired may change considerably over the years. If enough students migrate to companies like StraighterLine, the higher education industry faces a fundamental shift.

  • Chris Firek

    Wow, if this system is for real, what an amazing (and cheap!) way for people to further their education without the frightening burden of biting the bullet and absorbing a mountain of student loans…

  • StraighterLine

    Thanks for sharing great information about us!