"I'm not betting on luck or product coolness, but on student engagement and institutional course acceptance," Bonsal said. "Students should get something for their 'spend.'"
The big news for Straighterline this summer is that it recently struck its first "articulation" agreement with a Maryland higher education institution. Students will soon be able to take Straighterline courses and transfer them to the University of Maryland University College, the state's flagship online university, for credit.
Straighterline also is striking partnerships with companies that are looking to provide low-cost college courses with tuition reimbursement, as a benefit in the workplace. In July, the company announced a partnership with Aaron's, an Atlanta-based chain of stores that leases and sells household items, such as furniture and electronics.
Straighterline soon will allow its students to choose the course materials for their classes, which are offered by established textbook and curriculum publishers.
What Straighterline offers, Smith said, is a path to accreditation through its introductory course work. Students can receive credit toward a degree by transferring their course work to schools the company partners with, which are accredited. But Straighterline can't offer its own degrees to students, because it is not accredited.
With Straighterline's new model of enabling professors to customize courses and charge more for them to students means, at least theoretically, that the professors who offer the best value and services attached to the courses could attract more students as paying customers.
Under Straighterline's model, which is set for a pilot this fall, Smith estimated that a college professor who attracts a large, potentially global following of student course takers, could earn up to a million dollars from a course.
"My gut is the professor's brand won't be attached to the college, per se, and that's a different expectation than people assume right now," Smith said.
In reality, Smith sees the Internet and massive cheap or free online courses contributing to the rise of the branded, "rock star" professor. Much like the Internet has allowed popular bloggers and independent voices to gain millions of followers, Smith sees professors having that same potential to reach a wide audience based on the quality of their course content and offerings to students.
Straighterline has attracted 4,500 students — tripling its enrollment in two years — and has credit-transfer partnerships with 40 accredited colleges and universities in the United States. Its university partners like Straighterline because the company brings them a pipeline of students who've taken some courses, but still need more to finish their education at an accredited institution in order to receive a degree.
But Straighterline hasn't grown as quickly as Coursera, which has millions of students taking its free courses.
Yet Smith believes his company has a revenue model figured out. Students want cheap college courses, but they don't just want a certification of completion, Smith said, they want to receive real credit.
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