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StraighterLine's challenge to the rising cost of college

Baltimore startup offers 'first year of college' online for $999

October 31, 2010|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

StraighterLine doesn't have direct partnerships with other higher education institutions, but it does have agreements with 22 colleges and universities across the country — none yet in Maryland — that will award credit for its students' coursework. It also recently partnered with a company in Kentucky, which approved its coursework for tuition reimbursement for its employees. The company, however, doesn't offer federal financial aid.

"I don't think StraighterLine has a peer," said Jim Selbe, assistant vice president of lifelong learning at the American Council on Education. "I don't know of any other organization that is offering courses in these general requirements. The convenience of being able to sign up for those courses and not having to worry about an open seat available is of great value to many students."

Nonetheless, the company may face a long road of gaining acceptance among many colleges and universities.

"It's just easier to do transfers with other accrediting institutions," said Joseph S. Wood, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at the University of Baltimore. "The accreditation is what gives me the assurance of the integrity of the academic program."

Before University of Baltimore students take a StraighterLine course, he said they should clear it through the university, which awards credit on a case-by-case basis. Similarly, StraighterLine students would have to petition the relevant departments at the Community College of Baltimore County for credit for a course, said Dennis Mitchell, coordinator of transfer evaluation services.

Smith said his company may be seen as a threat by colleges who fear it will poach students. But he also said that StraighterLine could be a partner to community and four-year colleges, offering them a pipeline of students who want to take more specialized courses and need an accredited institution to award them a degree.

StraighterLine students don't have a single teacher guiding their courses. Instead, they have access to instructors with doctorates and master's degrees who are available whenever a student needs help.

And students get access to tutoring offered by another company, Smarthinking, which Smith co-founded in 1999. The Washington-based firm offers online tutoring and writing services to education institutions, including several in the Baltimore area.

Smith is confident that the company's courses will stand up to scrutiny.

"The academic validity of our courses is kind of a moot point at this point," he said. "There's nothing that we're doing different from an academic perspective than what colleges are doing themselves."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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