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In recent years the American Council on Education has experimented with issuing credit recommendations for online courses from non-college providers, sometimes sounding more like Silicon Valley than One Dupont -- the stodgy headquarters of the higher education lobby.

Those tests appear to have fizzled, as few students pursued college credits for MOOCs. So the council is trying a different approach.

On Wednesday it announced the creation of a pool of about 100 online courses that will lead to credit recommendations. The courses will be low-cost or free. They will be general education and lower-division, ranging across up to 30 subject areas. And the pool will not include a full curriculum for a bachelor’s degree.

The council, which is higher education's umbrella group, plans to partner with about 50 institutions that will agree to issue credit for the course recommendations. The idea is for students to be able to enroll in those colleges with up to two years of transfer credits from the pool of courses under their belts.

ACE said the project is aimed at the 31 million Americans with some college credits but no degree. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding the work with a $1.86 million grant.

“This really will support the degree-completion programs at institutions,” said Cathy Sandeen, ACE’s vice president for education attainment and innovation.

The courses could come from any college, as long as they are low-cost and meet the council’s criteria. That might include offerings from adult-focused institutions, like Excelsior College. But ACE also is opening up the pool to non-accredited, non-institutional providers.

Among that group, the council has had preliminary conversations with StraighterLine and the Saylor Academy, Sandeen said. MOOC providers might be part of the mix. But she said they would likely be of the on-demand variety, rather than MOOCs that are on a set schedule. She cited a few Coursera offerings from the University of California at Irvine as possibilities.

The council will not tack on a course fee for students. Transcripts for the credit recommendations typically cost about $40.

Some of the courses in the pool will have already gone through the council’s review for the issuing of credit recommendations. For those that haven’t, providers will need to pay ACE a fee. But the Gates money will help cover some of those costs, Sandeen said.

Burck Smith, StraighterLine’s CEO and founder, said he supports any effort to encourage more colleges to accept ACE credit recommendations for courses from non-institutional providers like his company. But he questioned whether the council’s management of the pool would complicate its role as a third-party reviewer of courses.

ACE will be selecting individual courses for the pool, Smith said, and then marketing them. That at least moves the council, which is higher education’s umbrella group, a bit closer to the role of course provider.

Sandeen, however, said ACE will remain solidly in the reviewer camp.

“We’re building the market in a quality way for these alternative providers,” she said.

Smith applauded the council’s effort to expand students’ access to low-cost courses. But he said ACE’s idea isn’t exactly new.

“What she’s proposing, we’ve already done,” Smith said of StraighterLine, which now offers almost 60 courses that all lead to ACE credit recommendations and are accepted by 80 partner colleges, among others.

The council’s course pool will include several variations of each course, Sandeen said. That could mean five versions of introductory biology from different providers. One reason for that approach, she said, is that the colleges will gather data about student performance in the courses. And ACE plans to study that information.

“We want to help the students,” said Sandeen, “but we also want to learn.”

Jeff Davidson, Saylor Academy’s vice president for development and community relations as well as its assistant general counsel, said ACE should be able to extend the reach of Saylor’s courses. He said governors in states where public institutions struggle to meet student demand might be interested in the course pool.

“It will also help to mature the market,” said Davidson.

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