College for $99 a month?

I do some tutoring in Spanish and essay writing for high school and community college students, and my heart goes out to them for what they're facing right now -- constant tuition hikes, a scramble to get the student loans and classes they need, and the fear of graduating with a load of debt and no job prospects whatsoever.

So when I came across this Washington Monthly article on a company that only charges $99 a month for online courses in entry-level subjects, I sent it to a few students to get their take. Here were a few of their comments:

"Sounds like this could save me and my mom a lot of money."

"If this article is right, I'll learn more this way than by sitting in a hall with hundreds of other students."

"Are these really accredited courses? Hell, with the help my school is giving me with getting into required courses, I'll try anything!"

I don't know if this company, StraighterLine, is the future of higher education, but it seems to be giving schools, at least community colleges and regional state universities, a run for their money right now.

They're offering freshmen-level courses like pre-calculus, English composition and economics I and II, that students can take at any time that fits their schedule, with a course adviser and tutoring help to boot.

Kevin Carey, the article's author, is a strong believer in StraighterLine, and as policy director of an education think tank, he puts forth good reasons why colleges shouldn't just shrug off the company as an online upstart. For starters, many colleges already use StraighterLine to give their students learning modules and tutorial assistance.

College textbook publishers also package StraighterLine tutoring into their books and software programs. However, the schools and the publishers charge their students a lot more than StraighterLine does, and students can only take the modules on the colleges' schedules.

To show how much StraighterLine saves students in fees, Carey profiles Barbara Solvig, a 53-year-old from Illinois who didn't finish college. After she lost her latest job, Solvig signed up for StraighterLine's courses. She studied up to 18 hours a day, finishing each course as slow or as fast as she wanted, without any additions to the $99 monthly fee, and she took advantage of tutors anytime, day or night.

In two months, Solvig finished four courses for less than $200. The same courses would have cost her more than $2,700 at Northeastern Illinois University near her home, $6,300 at the University of Phoenix, and multiple times more at a top-shelf private university; they also would have taken two or three times as long to complete.

To hammer home how much of a deal she was getting, Solvig's daughter, a student at the local community college, was using the exact same learning modules but was paying a lot more for them, could only take them on the college's schedule, and had a professor who wasn't doing much teaching at all.

From what I read on SmarterLine's website, its courses are geared specifically for undergrads and meant as transfer credits. But colleges are fighting back against SmarterLine, giving the company a tough time in being able to offer accredited courses that will be accepted at any college.

SmarterLine CEO's response: "A couple of posts from grad students who've never even seen or taken one of the courses pop up on Facebook, and [the accreditor] launches an investigation. Meanwhile, there are horror stories about bad teaching at regular universities on and they don't give it a second look."

There's a lot of debate right now about the worth of a college degree in a topsy-turvy, globalizing economy. True, a student going to a four-year university gets a rich experience of living away from home, taking a vast array of classes in any type of topic, and cheering on their football and basketball teams to the championships (although today's tough times mean even the $40,000-plus-annually Ivies are taking away their students' hot breakfasts and faculty's free cookies).

Will that give students a richer experience in those same courses there than StraighterLine can offer? Carey says no.

"[Colleges'] biggest cash cow is lower-division undergraduate education. Because introductory courses are cheap to offer, they're enormously profitable. The math is simple: Add standard tuition rates and any government subsidies, and multiply that by several hundred freshmen in a big lecture hall..That money is used to subsidize everything else....But this arrangement is not a particularly good deal for the freshman gutting through an excruciating 50 minutes in the back of a lecture hall."

I enjoyed my college experience, from my intro to philosophy class and the thick, dusty research books in the library to my first frat party and cheering on the basketball team against our cross-town rivals.

But I never thought the skills I learned in classes fully merited the $12,000 annual tuition (what a bargain back then). I learned far more skills for my journalism degree by doing internships at publications outside the school than I did within the (semi) ivy-covered walls.

And as a math-phobic, my lecture hall courses in pre-calculus and statistics were total nightmares. Would I do it differently as a college student today? Yes, for those basic freshman courses required to graduate, I would definitely consider using something like what StraighterLine offers.

Based on my tutorees' responses, they do too.

According to Carey, their offerings could easily move up the chain to sophomore- and junior-level courses and beyond. Based on students' demand for convenience and parents' need to keep tuition costs manageable, it's inevitable. "Econ 101 for $99 is online, today. 201 and 301 will come."
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