The question is no longer just academic at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. Under a novel arrangement, the school will accept credits from a private company that runs introductory online courses in subjects like economics and English composition–listing them on transcripts under the Fort Hays State name.
To some on campus, that sounds like a restaurant ordering takeout from a rival and serving it up as home cooking.
"It could really damage our academic reputation," said Topher Rome, a graduate student who helped start a Facebook group with 147 members opposing the arrangement.
But the public university notes the arrangement isn’t for current students there–it’s mostly a recruiting tool. Fort Hays State hopes to drum up business amid declining state funding and a dwindling local population, encouraging those who sign up for the online courses to continue their education through the university.
It’s the latest chapter in an evolving debate about the place of innovation in higher education. Is outsourcing teaching–especially for huge and often poorly-run introductory courses–a way for colleges to catch up with other industries and rein in out-of-control costs? Or does it mean gutting what makes universities special?
Versions of that debate are popping up on more and more campuses. University of Toledo faculty have protested negotiations between the university and a company called Higher Ed Holdings, which had proposed helping deliver master’s degree programs in exchange for a share of tuition revenue. The company works with a handful of other universities, including Arkansas State, where some faculty members have protested.
But Higher Ed Holdings claims it merely helps deliver the courses, and university faculty are still in charge.
The company working with Fort Hays State, StraighterLine, runs its own courses, which are designed by experts but aren’t led by a professor. Nonetheless, the credits earned would be indistinguishable from those taught by professors at Fort Hays State.
Given how many students fall through the cracks of giant general-education courses, StraighterLine founder Burck Smith says for-profit alternatives deserve a chance to prove themselves.
In his courses, students work at their own pace, following online lessons developed in conjunction with education publisher McGraw-Hill, reading assignments, and taking exams. Students can access up to 10 hours of individual, online tutoring–in some cases 24 hours a day. The model, Smith says, reduces the inefficiency of a class where everyone moves at a different pace.
The company–an offshoot of an online tutoring company called SmartThinking that Smith also founded–lets students purchase a single course for $399 (they have six months to complete it). Alternatively, they can pay $99 per month and take as many courses as they can finish in the required sequence.
Four other nontraditional or for-profit institutions have similar partnerships with StraighterLine, but Fort Hays State is the only traditional university so far. Students can try to persuade other institutions to take the credits, but there’s no guarantee.
Barbara Solvig, a 50-year-old Chicago mother of three who resolved to get a college degree after she was recently laid off, wanted an online degree because she didn’t think she could be in a classroom with kids. But she was floored by the cost of other options.
"Honestly, I could have gone to Northwestern for what they were charging," she said.
Solvig finished StraighterLine courses in composition, accounting, algebra, and macroeconomics, and she said the work was tough. With other credits collected elsewhere, she’s about 20 credits short of a degree at Charter Oak State College, a nonprofit college specializing in alternative and online learning that also accepts StraighterLine courses.
Fort Hays’ financial goal is recruiting more students. State funding covers about half the portion of the budget it once did, Provost Larry Gould said, and the area’s population has been declining for more than a century. It’s responded with a huge online program that enrolls more students off-campus (6,800) than there are on-campus (4,500).
"Our first job is to provide education services to the citizens of western Kansas," Gould said, but the university can’t do that without generating new revenues.
So far, Fort Hays has credentialed coursework for about 64 StraighterLine students since the agreement with the school in May 2008, but so far none have formally transferred into the university.
Gould acknowledged some faculty are worried, but he said they shouldn’t be. Once students transfer into Fort Hays State, all courses would be taught by university faculty; if more transfer in, there’s more work. He also said the university knows more about StraighterLine’s courses than other forms of outsourced credit, such as community colleges, for-profit universities, and Advanced Placement exams.
"Yes, there is concern," said Ron Sandstrom, chair of the department of math and computer science. "We’re interested about the jobs, but we’re really interested in the quality."
Academic departments have been able to review the courses before approval. Sandstrom says if he concludes the courses are strong, he won’t object.
Universities like Fort Hays State have broad leeway to accept whatever credits they choose. But Rome, the graduate student, compares StraighterLine’s arrangement with Fort Hays State to "money-laundering but with credit"–essentially borrowing the university’s own accreditation to give its courses legitimacy.
The federally designated accrediting agencies give their seals of approval to institutions, not courses, so StraighterLine, which has just 10 courses, isn’t eligible, though it says one accrediting agency has said its courses meet standards.
For some education reformers, the experiment at Fort Hays State is an example of how universities can move beyond one-size-fits-all economic models and streamline their introductory courses.
"There is simply not enough money to sustain higher education in its current format," said Carol Twigg, president and CEO of the National Center for Academic Transformation, which works with universities to redesign their own introductory courses. "There will always be a Harvard and people willing to pay … whatever it’s going to cost for four years, but for all other students we really need alternative models."
Note to readers:
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