Here's the pitch: "Can you really GO TO COLLEGE for LESS THAN the cost of your monthly CELL PHONE BILL? We can't say that this is true in ALL cases -- hey, you might have a GREAT cell phone plan. But maybe it's your cable bill, electric bill, or your GAS bill. ... The point we're trying to make is that taking general education, required college courses just became A LOT more affordable."
How affordable? $99 for a course. And if you take the courses offered by StraighterLine -- in composition, economics, algebra, pre-calculus, and accounting -- you don't need to worry that the company isn't itself a college. StraighterLine has partnerships with five colleges that will award credit for the courses. Three are for-profit institutions and one is a nontraditional state university for adult students. But one college among the five is more typical of the kinds of colleges most students attend. It is Fort Hays State University, an institution of 10,000 students in Kansas.
There, even as professors are still pushing to get information about StraighterLine so they can evaluate it, students have taken a look and decided that they don't like what they see. In articles in the student newspaper and in Facebook groups (attracting debates with the university's provost and the company's CEO), the students argue that StraighterLine is devaluing their university and higher education in general.
"In the short term, this may save FHSU a small amount of money (although this is debatable). In the long term, this could increase the cost of a degree for current students, lower the quality of education and academic standards at FHSU, lead to unemployment for many passionate educators, and eventually cheapen the value of a degree from FHSU for both current and future alumni," says the Facebook group created by students that has set off the discussion.
This week the issues are also being discussed critically by composition instructors. The blog Kairosnews, well respected in the composition world, writes that StraighterLine may represent a challenge to faculty control over general education and that faculty should worry about the company because of the "the novel and creative end-run it makes around traditional accreditation barriers."
Defenders of the arrangement have plenty of arguments of their own, noting that institutions like Fort Hays need to experiment with new forms of instruction and questioning the track record of traditional colleges in teaching basic courses, especially to those who need remedial help. Burck Smith, the CEO of StraighterLine, said that with the low graduation rates and low retention rates that abound, "it's hard to claim that we as higher ed are doing a good job."
From Tutoring to Instruction
StraighterLine is an offshoot of another company led by Smith, SmarThinking. That company provides outsourced online tutoring and writing assistance to students at colleges (as well as high schools or other organizations). The idea is that colleges and universities can't afford to provide tutoring during the hours students may need it. By providing tutoring online and to many institutions, SmarThinking improves service and provides middle of the night assistance that wouldn't otherwise be available. SmarThinking boasts hundreds of clients, including plenty from both nonprofit and for-profit higher education.
Smith cites leading education thinkers to explain his approach to education at StraighterLine, and in particular notes the work of Carol Twigg at the National Center for Academic Transformation, which argues -- just as Smith says his company does -- that courses need to be redesigned and that higher education should not assume that the traditional professor model is the best way to promote learning.
StraighterLine is a combination of education materials provided by McGraw Hill, courses that are planned by educators who have spent years thinking about how to teach introductory courses to college students, and the tutoring provided by SmarThinking. Smith said that the quality of his education team is high, and their biographies indeed include an Oxford Ph.D. and plenty of experience at traditional colleges -- plus a good deal in the for-profit sector.
Because StraighterLine just started in May, Smith said it cannot point to any long-term data on the success of its courses. But he said that the available evidence is encouraging. Of the students who started a course, 82 percent have either passed it or are in the process of completing the course. Of those students who have dropped out, 80 percent did so after only a single course (or midway through a single course). Because most students take their courses sequentially, that means that the students who failed generally did so after spending only $99. Compare that to the cost of tuition for a semester -- possibly paid for with a federal loan -- and Smith said that there is a clear benefit of his approach to both students and the taxpayer.
While critics question why colleges should award credit for such courses, Smith suggested that there is some hypocrisy in anyone claiming that colleges award credit only for work that they supervise. Colleges routinely award credit for Advanced Placement courses, for dual enrollment courses with high schools and for credit awarded by other colleges, institutions that may or may not share educational philosophies. Awarding credit for work done elsewhere is in fact common and accepted, Smith said.
What StraighterLine has done, he said, is to offer courses at affordable rates. "We are the free market for distance education, and at high quality," he said.
He also argued that colleges like Fort Hays stand to benefit. The students who transfer their credits to the university aren't from Kansas, and aren't those likely to enroll. But by getting their first credits there, they just might, Smith said.
Lawrence V. Gould, the provost at Fort Hays and the architect of the university's ties to StraighterLine, was not available for comment. But in an op-ed in the student newspaper, he cited the same argument Smith made -- that participation would yield more students for Fort Hays.
"How many FHSU students are taking or have completed SL coursework? Absolutely none. We have credentialed the coursework of 28 students so far; none of them from Hays or Kansas. Beyond the fact that no one has told anyone at FHSU to put students in SL coursework and never will, what does this tell us? It tells us the real reason why FHSU chose to be an SL partner college," he writes.
"The underlying purpose of the SL-FHSU partnership is to use SL as a lead generator. When a student from Dedham, Maine takes a SL course, the student can choose FHSU to credential the course. When that happens, the next step is to encourage the student to choose a full program of study at FHSU and take the remaining 121 hours from our institution. If that happens, FHSU has an opportunity to earn approximately $14,000 in revenue per student, revenue that can be used to save a faculty or staff position at FHSU or buy energy, supplies or educational equipment. This is a collective good that holds the potential to benefit the entire institution; not just one department."
Gould went on to say that "we may not like it, but by virtue of receiving less monies from the state general fund, public comprehensive universities are having to become more 'mission-centered and market-smart' at the same time." And he noted that colleges can't afford to go with their traditional ways of doing things. "The new 'normal' in higher education is constant change and continuous improvement. I’d rather have a partner who understands how to work toward quality in that type of environment. Darwin said it long before I did. It’s not the smartest or the strongest that survive; it’s those who can adapt and improve."
Evolving to What?
In the analysis of StraighterLine on Kairosnews, the faculty role is the central question explored. The blog raises questions about whether the combination of a major publisher and a centralized online provider of instruction will effectively take away control of courses from instructors.
And then there is the question of whether the StraighterLine approach should be viewed as a source of new jobs -- after all, it employs educators, and so does SmarThinking.
Smith said his businesses shouldn't be viewed as the end of the professor's job but as the birth of "new course formats," employing academics in new ways. Asked how much he pays his academics, compared to traditional colleges, he declined to cite figures. But he said that on the continuum from adjunct to tenured professor, the compensation offered is more like that given to adjuncts. Asked if his educators receive health insurance, Smith said that they are generally people who work part time, and that the company doesn't provide health insurance to people who work part time.
Several faculty members at Fort Hays declined to talk for attribution about the agreement with StraighterLine. According to some, however, there was never a formal faculty review of the program before Gould announced its launch, although some faculty members reportedly were aware of the discussions before they were announced. An English Department committee last month gave a report to the provost, saying that months after the university agreed to start awarding credit for the courses, the faculty was not certain that the courses were equivalent in rigor to those offered at the university and lacked enough information about the courses to form an educated judgment of their quality.
Students have turned to Facebook to ask questions about the issues that they say are unclear to them:
One student asked: "If Straighter Line fails too many students or make courses too challenging, they run the risk of losing support from the schools that use their service. How do they maintain academic honesty in an entirely virtual class? How do they anticipate the needs of a wide variety of students if their courses are pre-designed and generic? Can anyone actually tell me (with a straight face) that virtual general education classes offer the same quality as face-to-face instruction from passionate educators on the FHSU campus? Why bother being a liberal arts institution if we are going to devalue general education courses?"
Several students asked whether there were any non-financial reasons for aligning the university with StraighterLine.
Another wrote: "This is ridiculous. What's next, ordering our degrees from an ad in the back of a catalog across the page from the full-pager advertising tapeworm diet pills? This is only half a step away from offering degrees in private investigation, mortuary services, etc. like those advertised on TV."
Phillip Van Horn, a graduate student in education at Fort Hays who also earned his undergraduate degree there, is one of those who organized the Facebook protest. He said in an interview that the student anger is a result of the pride students feel in the quality of education they receive at Fort Hays.
"I can appreciate that this is seen as the wave of the future. But it makes me wonder why we exist as a college if we are going to start outsourcing courses," Van Horn said. "It makes me wonder if education in the future is going to lack the intimacy and tradition of the college experience."
Van Horn remembers his first year composition course for the way the instructor identified those who didn't need the basics, but needed to be challenged, and developed simultaneous assignments that reflected the various skill levels of students. While StraighterLine promises hours of one-on-one consultation available online, Van Horn said he remembers daily discussions with his instructor, in class and in her office. She's the one who helped him figure out which courses to take, to rethink his plans for a major.
Experiences he had, Van Horn said, should be shared by all college students. "My Comp I course changed my life."