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The Path to a Debt-Free College Degree?

Traditional universities could soon be forced to accept credits from online courses.


(Associated Press/Jessica Hill)()

Making it in America used to mean earning enough to send your kids to college. These days, it requires getting a degree yourself first--and then possibly upgrading your credentials and skills to qualify for a promotion or to switch fields. Education, as President Obama likes to say, isn't a luxury-good anymore; it's a necessity. 

Online education institutions have long served students who want to get a higher degree on their own schedule, and who aren't looking for the dorm experience, student center, and extra costs that come along with a traditional residential campus. Online education has also long revolved around testing: students move forward based on what they know, not based on how many hours they've spent in class.  


The next generation of innovators, such as StraighterLine and UniversityNow, are further redefining what constitutes a course credit and how learning can be priced. Pending legislation in California could scale up the shift, by requiring public universities to grant credit for faculty-approved online courses like those offered by StraighterLine.

StraighterLine isn’t an accredited institution, because it doesn’t award degrees. It allow students to take online courses, for credit, that they can then transfer to an institution. A monthly membership of $99 gets students access to as many $49 courses as they can handle. An entire freshman year costs just $1,299. 

Most students use StraighterLine to complete introductory courses, such as Economics 101, and they range from young adults who need to fulfill prerequisites before starting a two- or four-year college to adults focused on improving their résumés. The material is the same as any institution would offer in an online course, including assessments, tutoring, and the option to take a customized course.


Because StraighterLine doesn't need to pay for a campus, doesn’t offer related student services, and doesn’t have to deal with the red tape of accreditation, it can offer an online course closer to the price of what it actually costs to provide one. The company doesn’t receive any state subsidies, and doesn’t offer financial aid, but then again, it doesn’t need to.

“Colleges have, forever, thought of themselves as the single provider of the full suite of services—whether that’s social services, or library services, or advising or tutoring,” says Burck Smith, CEO and founder of StraighterLine. “That made sense when it was all in a physical location. It doesn’t make as much sense on the Internet.”

Nationwide, including in California, many public colleges and universities already offer full online degrees. But traditional institutions also tend to charge online tuition per semester, or per year, rather than per credit.

While elite institutions compete to see who can offer the most luxurious and comprehensive residential package, the new online innovators aim to provide a college education as cheaply as possible. That's important for aspiring college graduates at a time when college costs can saddle students with an onerous level of loan debt. Pacing students based on what they know, and using interactive online tools, can also help keep students engaged and up their chance of graduating on time. Just half of bachelor’s degree candidates graduate in four years, and less than a third of associate’s degree candidates graduate in three years, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.  


One of the first institutions to think about how education could be different online was Western Governors University, the brainchild of 19 governors who wanted to increase the capacity of state higher-education systems without spending more state money. Established in 1997, WGU pioneered what's known as a competency-based model.

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