2009 September 12 Saturday
Online College Courses for $99 a Month

Writing in the Washington Monthly Kevin Carey reports on an all-you-can-eat educational buffet for only $99 per month.

Luckily for Solvig, there were new options available. She went online looking for something that fit her wallet and her time horizon, and an ad caught her eye: a company called StraighterLine was offering online courses in subjects like accounting, statistics, and math. This was hardly unusual—hundreds of institutions are online hawking degrees. But one thing about StraighterLine stood out: it offered as many courses as she wanted for a flat rate of $99 a month. “It sounds like a scam,” Solvig thought—she’d run into a lot of shady companies and hard-sell tactics on the Internet. But for $99, why not take a risk?

Solvig threw herself into the work, studying up to eighteen hours a day. And contrary to expectations, the courses turned out to be just what she was looking for. Every morning she would sit down at her kitchen table and log on to a Web site where she could access course materials, read text, watch videos, listen to podcasts, work through problem sets, and take exams. Online study groups were available where she could collaborate with other students via listserv and instant messaging. StraighterLine courses were designed and overseen by professors with PhDs, and she was assigned a course adviser who was available by e-mail. And if Solvig got stuck and needed help, real live tutors were available at any time, day or night, just a mouse click away.

Crucially for Solvig—who needed to get back into the workforce as soon as possible—StraighterLine let students move through courses as quickly or slowly as they chose. Once a course was finished, Solvig could move on to the next one, without paying more. In less than two months, she had finished four complete courses, for less than $200 total. The same courses would have cost her over $2,700 at Northeastern Illinois, $4,200 at Kaplan University, $6,300 at the University of Phoenix, and roughly the gross domestic product of a small Central American nation at an elite private university. They also would have taken two or three times as long to complete.

Read the whole thing. Radical stuff.

I do not see any bricks-and-mortar college or university as immune to the market forces that are building up online. Harvard, MIT, Yale, and Stanford won't be driven out of business by far cheaper online course offerings. But their oxes will be seriously gored. Look at it this way: Even if most kids who are smart enough to get into the Ivy or Caltech decide to go to those really expensive schools if even 10% of their prospective students decide to save bucks (and get thru faster!) online then the demand for what they are selling declines and so does their pricing power.

The biggest appeal of the highest prestige schools is that you get to say that you attended one. The schools confer status on their graduates as a form of hidden IQ test. The use of IQ tests is taboo and legally problematic. But the knowledge that a kid just graduated from MIT provides potential employers a still legitimate filter for talent. But that status-granting function can be fulfilled more cheaply online. Let us consider the ways to provide proxy IQ tests with online education:

  • Faster education. A 15 year old can decide to get a degree by the time they turn 19 and work very hard online to earn the degree. An employer knows the earlier the kid can earn a degree the smarter the kid. Hey, brilliant kids will be able to earn a degree at age 18 or 17 or 16.
  • Degrees in hard subjects. Earn a degree in physics or mathematics.
  • Classes in hard subjects. Just get really hard courses on your transcripts. Get your degree in the subject fitting your career aspirations. But get A grades in topology and complex analysis to show your intellectual horsepower.
  • Degrees in multiple subjects. Get an engineering degree, an MBA, and an art history or English degree. Then you look more like management material. Do it all by age 22 with online study.
  • Hybrid approach with just 2 final years at a bricks-and-mortar school. Berkeley accepts community college students. Why not online courses to cover the basics and then transfer? Plus, a kid could get thru all the first 2 years of college before turning 18 and then graduate from Berkeley at age 20 rather than age 22.
  • Accomplishment outside of school. With all that money saved from avoiding a bricks-and-mortar school use the money to do an unpaid internship somewhere important.

The kids who use cheaper online courses to get thru school more quickly in a hard subject gain the most benefit. They save money, demonstrate their superior intellectual ability with both subject matter and age of graduation, and they pick up extra years of income by entering the labor force at a younger age.

I expect hundreds of colleges to out of business in the next few decades. The Left's continued push for more education spending on old style educational institutions is a huge waste of resources. Pitifully low college graduation rates for those who enroll (check out this chart which includes graduation rates) demonstrate that a lot of people are going to college who do not belong there. Better that they waste a year online and for much less money discover that they aren't up to college-level material. But the current regime instead will try to develop incentives to keep them in school.

Online education will be especially valuable for smart kids sitting in grade school and high school classrooms with dumb kids and not especially bright high school and elementary school teachers. Why waste time in the slow (and for me incredibly boring) lane of education? Shift into higher gear and relate to intellectual peers in online course discussion sections. Ask questions of smart tutors. Watch best-of-breed video recorded lectures by great instructors whose time you could not afford to sit in classes with. Online education will be a step up for most smarter students. As more lectures get recorded the number and quality of lectures available to watch will improve dramatically. The future of online education looks bright.

One last point: The acceleration of the rate of learning that online education enables will boost tax revenue by moving the smartest people into the labor market at younger ages.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2009 September 12 01:06 PM  Education Online

Daniel said at September 12, 2009 2:13 PM:

SATs are a good proxy for IQ. Just take the SATs and if the scores are good put them on the resume. In the past I was a recruiter in the software business. If a candidate had good SATs but didn't go to college and had relevant work experience I had no problem sticking my neck out pushing the client to see him. Bravo to companies like Brainbench too. (With companies like Brainbench, why do we need recruiters for software roles? That is what I had to ask myself.)

You are correct. The American college/university is a dinosaur. Should already be dead. As a nation, we are much poorer than we have thought. University education for the masses is a frivolous luxury that can't be endured any longer. Only the privileged or the truly gifted should waste their time with college. My hope is that within 20 years university education will have become so "uncool" that one will be pegged a loser for having wasted 4+ years there.

A welcome side effect of the diminution of the university in the consciousness of the nation may be an increases scrutiny of what we are getting out of our high schools. We need more vocational programs and high standards for those motivated towards the humanities and sciences. No reason why "college level" math, biology, physics and chemistry cannot be taught in high schools. Same with the humanities.

MaryJ said at September 12, 2009 7:04 PM:

Best of all, with online education you don't have to waste any time in enforced multi-culti liberal arts classes with their anti-Western brainwashing. Fewer jobs for professors of "diversity," "queer studies", etc? Oh too bad! This will seriously cut down on the Marxoid insanity currently emanating from our universities and colleges.

Randall Parker said at September 12, 2009 7:31 PM:


Double bonus points: Fewer lefties will have jobs with all their time available to write and spout their ideology.

Triple bonus points: You won't have to commit to a single university that has a single professor who teaches, say, 18th century American History and a single professor who teaches, say, American industrialization in the 19th century. Choose which of hundreds of American History courses you want to take. View some of the lectures in advance to choose one that is not objectionable. So it will be much easier to avoid the propaganda.

Once online courses start making bigger in-roads I expect many colleges and universities to offer courses to all comers. No need to apply for admissions. I expect groups of them to accept credits from each other and for the pure online universities to accept credits from the most different universities.

OneSTDV said at September 12, 2009 8:34 PM:

I've been discussing educational reform in a series at my blog:

Part four of educational reform series

miles said at September 12, 2009 9:37 PM:

I hope this becomes a trend. The educrats have too much of a monopoly and overcharge the daylights out of these kids and their parents. In my opinion, standardized tests could be very useful in measuring the worth of the degrees from all schools, and thus could be a way for non-traditional colleges to gain merit with potential employers. Its cruel to see young kids have to start their lives deeply in debt because of the rampant costs to get a degree. Im rooting for this.

Randall Parker said at September 12, 2009 9:51 PM:

miles, When I was in college my freshman year chemistry teacher showed a few of us an American Chemical Society standard test for what the ACS thought freshmen should learn in basic chemistry. The professional societies for chemistry, math, and physics could define such tests for the first couple of years of college courses.

mike said at September 13, 2009 2:31 AM:

"I hope this becomes a trend. The educrats have too much of a monopoly and overcharge the daylights out of these kids and their parents."

- which is particularly annoying when most of them are left liberals who are supposed to anti-capitalist and non-materialistic.

Engineer-Poet said at September 14, 2009 10:25 PM:

I was born waaaay too soon.  I could have used this sort of thing from about the fourth grade.

Educrats charge more money because loans and grants let institutions with something to offer do it; the actual consumer isn't paying full freight, at least not up front.  The rest is just the natural bureaucratic tendency toward empire-building combined with the need to keep the influx down to what the staff and physical plant can accomodate.  Making them compete on merit and value is a radical concept, indeed.

On the other hand, how many professors of 19th century industrialization can you support on their share of $99/month fees over relatively brief on-line school memberships?  "Hundreds of lectures" seems unsustainable; the resource base would appear to cannibalize itself fairly quickly.  There's probably a balance there, and I would not be surprised if $99/mo is off the low end of what can sustain the scholarship behind any kind of true educational system.

sg said at September 18, 2009 11:24 AM:

The beauty of this is the potential it has to skim the cream off the top. Many smart parents of smart kids wouldn't homeschool, but they would do it so the kid could get a bunch of college or a basic degree by 18 or 19. Nothing discredits a school more than falling test scores. When the smart kids leave, the scores drop, parents get concerned more kids leave. The school spirals down and the district has to go to enormous expense to start a new cool school to lure in parents of high performing students again. Also great for parents of girls who can't afford much, and don't want their daughters boozing away four years.

It seems there is a real sweet spot here. Serious recession, so parents can't afford much, and a surge in affordable, accessible options. Any parent can easily say, "do a year or two online, then when we have the money, you can go to State U." Once a few parents do it, a few more will, and there could be a social trend of students wanting to stay close to friends at home for the first year, which could then grow to two years. There is enormous potential because most kids are not academic stars who can make the case to parents for going away.

sg said at September 18, 2009 11:41 AM:

(check out this chart which includes graduation rates)

FYI, the link to graduation rates above is based on some PC bull. Steve Sailer explains

MEL said at September 18, 2009 3:50 PM:

To say that online courses are ideal because they avoid wasting time is ludicrous. Education takes time-- engagement, mastery, open-mindedness, debate, thinking on your feet.

As an on-line instructor of college courses, I can tell you that jumping into Threaded Discussions and leaving off Journal entries are so lame compared to sitting in a seminar and facing your fellow-learners. Students respond minimally to each other and to professor's feedback. They plug in, make a few ramblings out of real time, and then move on to other personal distraction devices. Live chats are a little better, but many students hide and lurk. Plug -in education is barely adequate at best.

Quick-- Get a fast food education! The faster the better. Can you truly believe that a 23 year old with 3 "degrees" is really worldly wise and highly educated?

My online students are what they eat. Fast food, cheaply made. May feel good going down, but loaded with fillers and little nutrition.


Bob said at September 18, 2009 10:07 PM:

This is all wishful thinking for you. The technology for online colleges has been around for at least 5 years.

Good schools will never go away. Harvard's 6% admissions rate means there are 16 people applying for everyone one they admit, and many more who'd be happy to pay but don't waste their time applying when they know it will be fruitless.

Online classes will also never be competitive to the quality community colleges that exist in most parts of the USA and charge not that much more.

Finally, this is wishful thinking because of the assumption that there are a lot of people 17-23 normal college age range that have the self-discipline, organizational, and technical skills to get degrees online.

Randall Parker said at September 18, 2009 11:22 PM:


The smartest kids do not need discussion sections to learn material. I met a guy in a math class who was so smart he stopped attending classes and only read the book (upper division Real Analysis - hard stuff btw) the night before tests. He got A grades consistently.

Do students with IQs of, say, 115 need more hand-holding? Sure. But the smartest ones do not.

As for the help of instructors: I sat in beginning calculus and physics classes in big lecture halls. Sometimes the teacher at the front had a foreign accent so strong he was hard to understand. Sitting in a seminar? That's not what I'm comparing online schools to. I'm comparing them to big university classes in the first 2 years of an undergrad degree. Millions of kids go thru those classes.


A lot of new technologies get taken up slowly at first. 5 years isn't a long time given the vested interests in the existing system.

MaryJ said at September 19, 2009 11:19 AM:

Education takes time-- engagement, mastery, open-mindedness, debate, thinking on your feet.
Do students really get those things in today's cookie-cutter, Marxoid indoctrination centers? I think not. Take a look at the alternative you are selling -- it's not that great. Especially not for 40K per year tuition.

MaryJ said at September 20, 2009 8:50 AM:

Interesting discussion here on the same subject: Will the Web Destroy Colleges? http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/CollegeAndFamily/MoneyInYour20s/MoneyInYour20sDyn.aspx?cp-documentid=21730775>1=33004

Jenn said at November 29, 2010 10:13 PM:

I'm currently taking the Texas online course which is one of the best online colleges in Texas. I think it is a real good course they have going, as long as you make enough time to read your books and do the tests and your in good shape for the boot camp its ok. When you do go down to Texas you stay at an actual fire hall for the whole 2 weeks. So you sleep with everyone, eat with everyone, and train with everyone. I've talked to a lot of people who graduated from that course and most of them got hired in their cities. I'm in the July boot camp and I know that about 18 people in the boot camp there are at least 10 Canadians. The only thing they don't train you is Driver/operator. But you receive FF1/2 and all your hazmat also. I am currently a volunteer firefighter also and I took this course to my chief to let him look at it and he thought it was a pretty good course to take. But if anyone has any questions feel free to ask.

John Ricky said at October 22, 2011 5:28 AM:

I agree with MEL; going by the apparent convenience would be counter productive. Especially for young who cannot cultivate themselves and are too flamboyance to meet the deadlines, online education offers no joy. Too often People, in the hope of amassing degrees in a shortest possible time end up making mess of their future. They learn so many things and yet they fail miserably in practical life. In my view, online education is still at nascent stage and its application should be limited to only higher degrees. At higher level, students are more responsible and are more committed toward the goals.

That way, not only diploma mills could be prevented from tricking gullible younger students but one would also see the optimum use of online technology. What confuses me the most is that why people resort to online education when they confront no hurdle in attaining regular education? I am not against virtual education; in fact, I propose it as the solution for creating a global learning culture but at the same time, I do not want it to spread at the expense of normal education.

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