Such developments could open the door to new types of providers, which has entrepreneurs optimistic, though pushing for more.

“The whole monopoly on credentialing is slowly breaking,” said Burck Smith, co-founder of Baltimore-based Straighterline, a small start-up with large ambitions.

The company offers online courses (self-paced but with tutors available) in subjects like algebra and chemistry. For now, it can’t offer credit itself, because it’s not a traditional, accredited university. But about 40 colleges have agreed to award credit to students who finish Straighterline courses -“unbundling” some of their teaching to a specialized provider.

Students also can’t use federal aid to pay for Straighterline courses. But because Straighterline doesn’t have a campus, it doesn’t charge for things like football teams, student unions and career counselors. It charges only for teaching: $99 a month, a price most can pay without federal aid. It plans to enroll as many as 15,000 this year.

Some colleges can justify their $50,000 price tag, Smith said. But for students who just want well-taught basic courses, without bells and whistles, why shouldn’t the market offer just that?

Asked recently whether he would push for more changes to open up the market, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he wants to make room for more experiments and to see the data.

“College costs are crushing lots of Americans,” Duncan said. “I think technology has a chance, an opportunity, to be very, very disruptive, very helpful there.”

“I’m extraordinarily interested,” he added. “I’m not sold.”


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