Cutting Costs for College: How StraighterLine Provides an Affordable Pathway to Graduation with Online General Education Courses
Over the past few years, it has become widely known that high school students across America are spending billions on remedial courses.
When it comes to saving money on college tuition, general education requirements are often the low-hanging fruit. Many students take AP classes in high school. Others sign up for community college courses to save money before transferring to a 4-year institution.
Another option is to go online. Straighterline is a company that focuses specifically on online general education courses, allowing students to earn credits that can be transferred to over 100 colleges and universities.
We spoke with Burck Smith, Founder and CEO of Straighterline, about how his program can help students save money.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Hello I’m Hester Tinti-Kane with EdTech Times, and today I’ll be interviewing Burck Smith, CEO of StraighterLine. Thank you for making the time to speak with us today, Burck.
Burck Smith: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So can you introduce yourself, and tell us a little bit about StraighterLine?
Burck Smith: Sure. I am the CEO and founder of StraighterLine. We help students lower the cost and risk of starting college, and we help colleges track and retain students. We do this by offering extremely affordable general education courses, things like Psych 101 or English 101 or College Algebra, Econ 101, etc. They’re guaranteed to transfer to willing colleges. Students start with a free trial and then, if they like the format, a $99 per month subscription. Which is substantially cheaper than even in-state community college prices.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So that’s great. Thanks for that overview. Can you tell us a little bit about the history? How long has StraighterLine been around?
Burck Smith: Sure. I started at StraighterLine in 2008. It was a division of my first company, which is an online tutoring service for colleges that is called SmartThinking. In 2010, StraighterLine became its own company. And for me, my background is in public policy. And really in the late 90s, what I was really interested in was the skyrocketing cost of higher education. It’s something that was growing, and still is, significantly faster than the rate of inflation — obviously a problem for uhh middle and uhh… really all Americans.
Burck Smith: And what was peculiar was that despite the skyrocketing cost of higher education, you also saw dramatic increases in online delivery. Prices weren’t falling. Which is weird, because any kind of new technology tends to have lower prices in that market. And so in higher education, 93 percent of colleges still charge the same [sic] for online courses, as for face-to-face. So I did a little bit of thinking about what’s going on in the market, and it became clear to me that it was very hard for new providers to come in and lower the price of essentially college credits by offering different sorts of services — accreditation and public subsidies that float a college just make it very difficult for these new providers. So what we set out to do was to start to use online courses as a way to drive down the price and the risk of starting college for students.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Interesting. So tell me how students come into contact with StraighterLine. I mean, if you think about a student searching for, you know, opportunities to take courses at universities, maybe that’s face-to-face or online. How do they come into contact with StraighterLine as one of their options?
Burck Smith: Sure. There are a few ways. First, if you are a student and you search for online college algebra or online English composition, or any of those course level search terms, we’ve been around a long time and have great search engine authority. Which means that we come up high on the search engines, typically first. So when you’re searching for those courses they’ll come up, see us, then come over to our website and decide whether this is an option for you.
Burck Smith: We also, this is something that’s really grown pretty dramatically over the past three or three years, but colleges increasingly refer their own students to us. And they tend to do it if they have students that they can’t enroll. So students that come to them and they need prerequisites for programs. Or they need to prove their ability prior to entry, or uhh….need to take math or writing courses prior to entry. A college might say, “Go to StraighterLine, take your courses and come back.
Burck Smith: They also have students who are already enrolled, but are at risk. They might be hitting financial aid caps or have affordability concerns, or summer scheduling issues or gen ed requirements — a whole variety of reasons. And when colleges do that, they may send students to us directly.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Got it. So, tell me what the typical StraighterLine student looks like.
Burck Smith: We have many different types of students. So, it’s hard to pick just one. You know, for instance, we have high school students who are trying to get credits prior to enrollment. We have international students trying to reduce the price of college. But, in general, most of our students would be classified as nontraditional.
Burck Smith: And that’s actually a term that the Department of Education uses for students who have any one of the following characteristics — if they are older, if they are part-time, if they’re online, if they have families or if they’re working, they’re counted as nontraditional. That’s actually the majority of students today. And those are the ones that are typically taking StraighterLine courses.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Got it. Can you share the story of one student’s successful experience with your group?
Burck Smith: Well again, it’s really hard to pick one. We enrolled 22,000 students in the last twelve months. And so there’s, there’s a lot to choose from. And on our website, we have success stories covering all sorts of different categories. So I think probably the best is to… to share just a few categories. So one is uhh…students needing credit to enter.
Burck Smith: We work with a number of colleges, but one is Western Governor’s University. And they have a requirement that students must have at least 12 credits to enroll. And so students that come to them who don’t meet that requirement. They suggest to go to StraighterLine. Take those courses and come back. And what we see is a really strong return and then stronger persistence of those students than the rest of their cohort. These tend to be adult students who are, you know, want to work online in a competency-based environment.
Burck Smith: We have another category of students that are essentially trying to save money. They’re kind of, they’re sort of shoppers. They are amassing credit from multiple sources prior to enrollment at a college. And that could be credits from other colleges, it could be from StraighterLine or CLEP. But they are doing whatever they can to reduce the costs and increase the speed with which they can get a degree. So we have a fair number of those sort of students. And then lastly, we have others kind of taking, you know, courses in ones twos or threes. You know they have a very specific need. Maybe fulfill courses prior to enroll in a graduate program — we have a number of health science students who are doing that. As well as business students. Where they may have a couple of courses in the summertime. So it’s a number, a number of, a category of students just fulfilling kind of individual course needs.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Got it. So you just mentioned Western Governors University. What are some of the other successful partnerships that you have with colleges and universities?
Burck Smith: Yeah, there are a lot. So we have a partnership relationship with 130 colleges. Over 130. They’re on our website. It’s probably best to sort of describe how we work with colleges. First, it’s free to work with us. So there are a number of different ways really, in sort of increasing order of partnership. The first is an articulation agreement. It just is a signed agreement that guarantees that credit from us will transfer in certain ways to that college. And we do that because we don’t want students enrolling with us and not getting the credit they think they’re going to get. So we create these formal agreements for the college. It puts that college on our website, they have their own partner page. They become part of the selection set from which our students are choosing. And so it leads to increased enrollments for free at that particular college. And that’s the group we have about 30-some relationships.
Burck Smith: The second are colleges that want to go a little further, they actually want to refer students to us. Either exclusively or as an option. And in those cases we create tight partnerships with those colleges, so that we can work with preferred students to get them to succeed and return to the referring college.
Burck Smith: And lastly, this is something that should launch in the next six to six months or so. We were selected as part of the Department of Education’s equip program. What we will be doing is delivering up to three quarters of two associate’s degrees for Brookhaven College in Dallas County Community College District. And students who enroll at the college will then take our courses as a program option within Dallas.
Hester Tinti-Kane: That sounds really exciting.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So is there anything else you want to share? I mean what’s next for Straighterline? You just shared that that exciting program that’s coming up. Anything else that’s new?
Burck Smith: Well it’s a lot of doing more of what we’re doing. I think we are addressing really big issues that are only going to get more pronounced. Higher education price has obviously been a big issue for a long time. Risk I think is also something that is becoming better appreciated is a problem. You know for many students, starting college is a very high risk decision, especially with the success rates, or the lack of success rates that we’re seeing at the college level. So starting in a way that’s low price, low risk… you know we have a free trial. Then you go into a subscription model that’s WAY cheaper that starting directly and then not succeeding.
Burck Smith: So the issues we’re addressing are big and going to get bigger. And I’m particularly excited about some of the programs we have in the works. When we can add a title four financial aid pathway for our students. Because we are not a college, we’re not allowed to be accredited — We have agreements with accredited colleges but we are not a college ourselves. We can’t use title four, or our students can’t use title four. So perhaps it’s pretty exciting.
Hester Tinti-Kane: That is exciting. Thank you so much for speaking with us today. Burck I really learned a lot about StraighterLine. Thank you.
Burck Smith: No problem. Glad to do it.
This podcast episode is sponsored by Inversant, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps lower- to middle-income families plan and save for college.
If you would like to donate to Inversant,visit Inversant.org/donate.
To learn more about how Inversant can help you prepare for your child’s future, visit inversant.org/educationlibrary.
Listen to the full series, “Challenges and Solutions for Student Financial Aid & Debt.”
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.