To the Editor:
In "Such a Deal? Maybe Not" ("Online Learning," The Chronicle, November 5)—an article asking whether colleges overprice distance-education courses—a representative of Montana State University called StraighterLine's distance-education model "impoverished."
In the online comments section of the article and in private correspondence, we issued a challenge to Montana State to compare its online courses and, more importantly, the online courses that it accepts for transfer credit, to StraighterLine's. If our courses meet their credit-transfer standards, we asked that they enter into an articulation agreement like we have with 22 other colleges.
Not surprisingly, Montana State has, so far, refused to conduct such an evaluation. Such a refusal is particularly galling given that StraighterLine's courses have been reviewed and recommended by the American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service, an organization whose recommendations Montana State—along with 1,200 or so other colleges—professes to honor.
Though StraighterLine's tiff with Montana State may seem parochial, it is symptomatic of higher education's unwillingness to accept new business models, inherent conflicts of interest between course delivery and credit assessment, and the ability to use subjective educational standards to keep competitors out.
To keep costs and prices down, StraighterLine is deliberately unaccredited. Accordingly, StraighterLine receives no state funds, and its students do not use federal grants or loans to pay for StraighterLine's courses. To demonstrate course validity, StraighterLine has amassed a variety of third-party validations from respected agencies, colleges, and individuals.
Despite receiving no taxpayer subsidies, StraighterLine's prices for general-education courses are well below those of most public colleges—including community colleges—whose prices are heavily subsidized. Clearly, StraighterLine provides substantial benefits to students and taxpayers but price competition to accredited colleges. Would Montana State have leveled such a public criticism against another accredited college? I think not.
Accreditation, then, is supposedly what separates those who provide "impoverished" courses from those whose courses are "rich." However, it is difficult to infer anything about a course based on whether its provider was accredited. First, accreditors do not evaluate courses. They review institutions. Second, even if an institutional review is an indicator of course quality, there is a huge variance among accredited institutions—including some with program-completion percentages in the single digits. Further, within institutions and even among course sections, there is more variation. Third, there are no objective standards about what constitutes course quality or satisfactory student performance within the accreditation review.
Some argue that accreditation serves as a useful proxy to diminish the administrative burden of course review. While that may be true, the ACE College Credit Recommendation process serves the same function at least as well. In practice, accreditation is not an indicator of course quality, but an indicator of institutional dependence on taxpayer support. Colleges like Montana State can choose to accept credits from institutions that aren't threatening and dismiss credits from those that are without ever having to justify those decisions with objective, consistently applied standards.
Colleges have assumed the responsibility for both delivering and assessing education. Course delivery fuels their economic engine. A course-assessment monopoly keeps competition out. These functions, combined with billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies, creates a powerful conflict of interest for accredited colleges. As recipients of taxpayer dollars, will colleges see themselves as stewards of students and allow equivalent credit for equivalent courses? Or, will colleges invoke arbitrary quality standards and whisper campaigns to preserve their narrow business interests? Where do you stand?
Burck Smith
CEO, StraighterLine