By: Christina Gómez Echavarría

Baltimore, MD, United States.

For today’s college students, “non-traditional” is the new normal.

According to the Department of Education, non-traditional college students,(over the age of 25,working at least part time, and/or raising a family of their own) account for more than 65% of the total college student population in the United States.

Of course, the traditional model for higher education (on-campus, face-to-face classes) doesn’t mesh well with the busy schedules of non-traditional students. While the growth of online learning and other education technology has enabled institutions to more flexibly deliver courses, cost remains one of the primary hurdles that deters or even prevents non-traditional students from finishing a degree program or even beginning one.

“93% of colleges charge the same or more for online courses as for face-to-face classes, even though the cost of delivery isn’t as much.”

Burck_SmithThis was the issue that inspired Straighter Line, a non-traditional online learning community for non-traditional students. Founded in 2008, Straighter Line offers reduced-price general education college courses, such as economics 101, psychology 101, accounting 101 and many others. Burck Smith, Straighter Line’s CEO and founder, was originally struck with the idea in the 90’s while studying at Harvard University for his Master’s degree and when online learning was still in its infancy. Knowing that if education technology evolved and reached a particular level of adoption, courses could be delivered much more easily and at a lower cost. Yet, according to Smith, despite the growth and adoption of online education, “93% of colleges charge the same or more for online courses as for face-to-face classes, even though the cost of delivery isn’t as much.”

Straighter Line not only cuts the typical costs for introductory classes, but enables students to save time and finish courses at whatever rate (or hour) they choose. “We have seen data that students who come from us do much better than average college undergraduate student,” says Smith. In part, it’s because we have great courses, I’m very proud to say, but also because when students use our courses, they are proving themselves before they enter a full college program. They are basically demonstrating that they are going to be successful students who are more likely to succeed.”

Smith says that statistics also back up Straighter Line’s approach, as college graduation rates for students that use non-traditional online courses (similar to StraighterLine’s) are higher than for students who don’t. The higher rates of success are attributed to the courses’ flexibility, which gives students the opportunity to work for a living and/or take care of a family and study in their free time.

Improved program retention and graduation rates are very attractive to universities, which is why has been able to partner up with over 100 universities who allow students to transfer their Straighter Line credits to a degree program they choose. “Straighter Line can also be a referral destination for universities who have lost engagement with students”, says Smith. “Many colleges have students who applied but failed to enroll, or who enrolled but failed to complete their course, and this way they can get in touch with those students, tell them to take a couple of Straighter Line courses, and then come back and hopefully receive their diplomas”.

It wasn’t easy for Straighter Line at first, because the idea that you could receive college-level courses that could be used at universities for a tenth of the price was highly controversial. “We built our courses just like any other college would,” says Smith. “When people criticized us, it was a veiled insinuation that our courses were of a lower quality, but that isn’t the case. Also, the market has evolved. In 2012, when MOOCs became widely available, people began to understand that online courses are a valid way to go.”

On the technology side, Smith doesn’t claim to have made some enormous breakthrough, but rather, used existing technology and transformed it. “In education, we tend to look for a silver bullet from technology to change structures,” says Smith. “But as in every other industry, technology is only powerful when it’s accompanied by new business models. So when we started, we realized we didn’t need any new technology, we just needed to put existing technology into a new economic model. We took the best of what was out there: online tutoring companies. We use Moodlerooms because is a great open source platform where we can make our own adjustments; we integrated it with proctoring services, and we transmit the classes via videos or podcasts”.

At the end of the day, Straighter Line wants to help students graduate with marketable skills, save money and prevent them from becoming part of the 40% of today’s students who don’t complete their program and end up having a massive debt without the reward of a degree. “Low risk options like Straighter Line are an opportunity to do that,” says Smith, “because students are more confident of their future success and ultimately we could see success rates go up and debt go down, which is very exciting”.

*Burck Smith – Straighter Line CEO & Founder

In the photo: Burck Smith.