Most college freshmen at major state schools pay upward of $5,000 annually in tuition and fees alone. And those enrolled at some of the largest and best known online schools such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University pay roughly double that. However, students who wish to tackle their freshman year at online startup StraighterLine will spend only $999 for 10 entry-level courses of their choice.
But there's a catch.
StraighterLine, founded in 2009, is not an accredited institution and has no designs on becoming one, but hopes to become a viable option for those in need of cheap college credit. Rather than furnishing full degree programs, StraighterLine only offers entry-level courses like college algebra, accounting I, and general chemistry I. In order for a school to be regionally accredited—what education experts and employers commonly cite as the benchmark for judging a school's credibility—an institution must offer comprehensive degree programs.
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StraighterLine has no such aspiration because so far it has formed partnerships with 21 accredited institutions—a majority of which are online oriented—that award credit for the company's courses. This allows students to spend relatively little on their entry-level courses, but still receive credit for them from accredited partner institutions when they transfer in hopes of completing their degree. A majority of the schools accept StraighterLine credit only on a pass/fail basis. "Accreditation is being used as the gold standard, but it really is a terrible proxy for course-level validity," says StraighterLine founder Burck Smith. "We went to schools and said, 'If you think our courses are equal to or better than your existing courses, please award credit for them.'"
Smith had to convince partner schools that the material covered in StraighterLine courses (the pace of which is student driven, though tutoring services are available) was on par with their own offerings. In order to sway them, Smith had StraighterLine classes evaluated by the American Council on Education and the College Board's Advanced Placement Program, among other certifying bodies. Nine of 17 classes the company offers were approved for transfer credit by ACE and four—English composition, calculus, macroeconomics, and microeconomics—were deemed to be at an AP level. Colorado State University Global Campus was among the schools impressed enough by StraighterLine's offerings to form a partnership. "CSU-Global Campus has decided to partner with StraighterLine because of the opportunity to serve a population of students we are unable to reach on our own," Jenna Langer, chief operating officer of CSU-Global Campus, said in a September press release. "It is an affordable, accessible way for students in Colorado and beyond to better themselves and their futures."
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StraighterLine boasts that schools beyond their partner institutions have also accepted credits, including Georgetown University, Ohio State University, and Mississippi State University. However, schools are typically skeptical of transfer credits from unaccredited institutions and give them a thorough review before they accept them. The University of Central Florida, where a faculty member recently won a Sloan Consortium award for excellence in online teaching, for instance, is hesitant to accept credits from unaccredited schools. "We cannot guarantee the integrity or content of the materials used for instruction, nor could we verify the credentials of the instructors," says Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala, a school spokesperson. "The regional accreditation process guarantees all of that and provides a sense of stability, consistency, and integrity in the process."
Kennesaw State University, in Kennesaw, Ga., whose online program also won a Sloan-C award, offers a similar take: "We obviously do not have the resources available to fully examine course quality at every institution," says W. Ken Harmon, the school's interim provost and vice president for academic affairs. "Accordingly, we rely on accreditation to be certain that courses have passed through an appropriate quality filter."