Entrepreneur Finds a Way to Offer Credited Courses on the Cheap

Jacquelyn Martin, AP Images

Burck Smith, chief executive of StraighterLine
February 26, 2012

Burck Smith thinks online courses should be cheap—really cheap. In his world, students can take a course for less than the price of a pile of textbooks. An entire first year of college costs just $999.

As the founder of StraighterLine, he has worked to streamline the cost of providing popular courses online, and has formed partnerships with accredited colleges that give the company's students transfer credit.

THE INNOVATOR: Burck Smith, StraighterLine

THE BIG IDEA: Make online education cheaper by letting companies offer courses on behalf of colleges.

It has been a hard sell at times. After StraighterLine introduced its first courses in 2008, some of the company's early academic partners backed away from their agreements, saying the classes didn't meet their traditional tastes.

Mr. Smith is undaunted. Lately he has taken his case to cost-conscious state legislators, hoping they might sway colleges to accept transfer credits more readily. Now, StraighterLine counts a group of 25 for-profit and nonprofit institutions among its partners, and Mr. Smith says 250 others have accepted coursework from the company's 4,500 students.

Mr. Smith credits his public-policy education (from Harvard University) and think-tank research (he is a member of the American Enterprise Institute's Higher Education Working Group) with showing him that technology investments haven't helped universities lower costs or improve productivity. He says he learned that effective change couldn't come from inside the system.

He's out to prove that StraighterLine's courses can succeed where colleges have failed, with a slate of offerings that includes college-level algebra, introductory economics, and an anatomy lab course featuring kits of animal parts for at-home dissections.

"If I can't actually point to an example of how college can be made much, much cheaper, and point to an example of the ingrained contradictions within the existing system, then I can talk all I want, but no one's going to pay much attention," he says.