Burck Smith wanted to give college students a way to earn course credits and kick-start their higher-education careers while slashing first-year college costs by more than half.

Smith, CEO of StraighterLine, introduced the online service this fall, giving adults resuming their education or recent high school graduates a chance to complete online classes that will transfer to colleges and universities across the United States.

Smith said the company would focus on general education, meaning StraighterLine will offer classes equivalent to those a college freshman or sophomore would have to complete before advancing to the final years of undergraduate studies.

Students can take a StraighterLine course for $399 and face no minimum or maximum time to complete the class. But in a unique business model that could revolutionize the online-learning industry, students also can sign up for any of the eight classes—including economics, accounting, developmental writing, and English composition—offered by StraighterLine for a flat fee of $99 a month. Enterprising students who work hard to complete the courses as quickly as possible can save money—or earn more college credit in a fixed amount of time.

Students also receive up to 10 hours of one-on-one tutoring per course. The student can use these hours at his or her choosing.

The service "allows people to start college very affordably and very quickly," said Smith, whose company is based in Washington, D.C. He added that education giant McGraw-Hill provides material for StraighterLine classes.

As the price of a college education has risen by 35 percent in the last six years, outpacing personal income and consumer prices since the 1980s, Smith said, people from varying backgrounds would seek an alternative that was accepted by a range of colleges and universities.

"College is always expensive, but certainly this seems to be a trend that’ll favor [more affordable online learning]," he said, adding that this year’s financing crunch has amplified the strain on college students trying to earn a degree. "In these tough economic times, when loans just aren’t available, this makes a lot of sense."

Compared to traditional colleges, StraighterLine students could save hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars in their first year or two of college work. The average cost of a course at a four-year public institution is about $700, and the cost of a private college course is about $2,600—about six times more than StraighterLine’s per-course fee. The average cost of a course at an online university is $1,482, according to 2007 statistics released by the College Board.

Institutions that currently accept credits earned through StraighterLine courses are Jones International University, Ellis University, Grand Canyon University, Potomac College, and Fort Hays State University. StraighterLine will bolster its course catalog soon with classes like chemistry, physics, biology, pre-calculus, and statistics.

Smith said StraighterLine is in talks with other colleges that are thinking of accepting credits earned through the program. The selling point is a logical one, Smith said: Students who earn freshman and sophomore college credits through StraighterLine will need somewhere to finish their education.

"That’s where colleges come in," he said.

Officials at StraighterLine partner schools said their faculty thoroughly evaluated the courses to ensure they met university standards.

"If it isn’t a good match, we don’t use that course," said Terry Rawls, vice chancellor for academic programs at Denver-based Jones International University (JIU). "We judge these [courses] to be equivalent to ours … and that’s something that’s been done in higher education for generations."

As more students who use StraighterLine need a school where they can continue course work, Rawls said, colleges—especially online colleges like JIU—should aggressively pursue these students.

"It’s kind of a recruiting tool," said Rawls, who said he wasn’t sure how many JIU students had used StraighterLine. "To me, the StraighterLine project fills a gap for those who may not have the confidence to go back to school. It’s an opportunity for them to jump in and take a course. [StraighterLine] is probably going to be used mostly by adults who are anxious about returning … and this is a way of dipping a toe in, and to do it in a relatively low-stress environment."

Links:

StraighterLine

Jones International University