Education company StraighterLine, founded more than a decade ago, has delivered many lessons to its online student body over the years. But the firm says it has also learned important lessons from its students to drive the company’s growth.

One big lesson is understanding that students need flexibility and control over their pace of learning.

That dynamic means everything to today’s digital learner—most often someone who is not going straight from high school to an on-campus residential experience. Instead, these students are typically working and taking on an education program while juggling other important obligations like work, family, and childcare.

“Our courses tend to be student-paced and tutor-supported so students can move as fast or slow as they need,” says David Parento, president and co-founder of StraighterLine. “Any device, any time allows students to take in as much time as they need.”

The other lesson goes to the bottom line for StraighterLine students. From day one, the firm’s mission was to lower the cost of higher education. Online courses are cheaper to deliver than in-person classes. But colleges and universities have been reluctant to offer them and cut into their tuition revenue, says Burck Smith, StraighterLine CEO and co-founder.

Burck Smith, StraighterLine CEO and co-founder

But with the cost of a four-year degree now well into six figures, traditional colleges have had to bend in recent years and become more accepting of credits from digital learning platforms. COVID-19 has accelerated the shift.

“Now we are at a point where consumers are consciously wondering if they should be paying the same for an online experience as they would for an in-person experience,” Smith says. “So it’s a level of consumer change that hasn’t been present over the last two decades.”

Founded in 2009

Entrepreneurs Smith and Parento founded StraighterLine in 2009. The Baltimore-based company provides undergraduate college courses to students online for $99 a month, with a guarantee that successful course work will transfer to an accredited college in its network. Over the years, the company has expanded from directly working with students through its website to cooperative and creative partnerships with universities and employers, supporting 35,000 new students annually.

In May, StraighterLine partnered with private equity firm BV Investment Partners in Baltimore to grow its strategy and revenues. William Blair was the exclusive advisor to StraighterLine.

“The need for efficient and effective remote learning offerings has never been more evident than today,” Jason Kustka, managing director of BV Investments, said in May. “We believe StraighterLine has true breakout potential, with a differentiated platform and significant opportunity to grow within the higher education and employer markets.”

These are unprecedented times where the realities of a pandemic challenge learners to chart new pathways through education.

Burck Smith

The company is continuing to invest in technology including Academy, its digital platform with links to the firm’s 130 partner institutions. These colleges and universities team up with StraighterLine to create their lower-cost online pathway programs to allow digital students to earn credits.

Just over the summer, StraighterLine announced two new relationships with Indiana Tech and Denver Community College to launch education programs for adults. 

StraighterLine is also expanding into the employer market, partnering with the company Bright Horizons which works with corporations across the country to offer college degree programs to their employees.

It’s all part of a mission to help Americans retool in their ambition for higher education.

“These are unprecedented times where the realities of a pandemic challenge learners to chart new pathways through education,” Smith says. “It is challenging institutions to make good on their promises of equity and affordability to help learners access the courses they need to complete and thrive.”