I like to tell people I majored in public policy, but the truth is right there on the diploma. It says “Interdisciplinary Studies,” which is another way of saying I created my own major by picking courses from a number of university departments. I took some Economics, dabbled in Political Science, signed up for graduate-level Education policy courses, and completed classes in urban planning. I took what I thought was the best, most well-rounded education in public policy that I could get at my university. All I had to do was write up a short essay explaining why I should be allowed to do it, suggest a sample course schedule, and find a willing faculty member to supervise.
I was thinking about all this last week at an AEI conference where Burck Smith, founder of StraighterLine, was talking about his company’s partnership with Fort Hays State University. StraighterLine offers college courses for $99 a month (read more about how this works here), but then partners with accredited colleges and universities, like Fort Hays State, to accept the credits and provide a stamp of legitimacy in the form of its regional accreditation.
Because Straighterline is not an institution–it does not offer degrees, only courses–it cannot ever earn accreditation in the traditional sense. Its courses must have the accreditation stamp, or else its students could never earn a degree from an accredited institution. This scenario was all fine and well in a different era when individuals tended to start and finish at the same institution.
That’s not the case anymore. At a regional public institution like Fort Hays State, places that exist all across the country and educate the masses, 20 percent of students graduate with credits from more than five institutions and 75 percent had credits from more than two places. These numbers are pre-StraighterLine, and they help show that the world of a full-time student enrolling in one institution and graduating four, five, or six years later is not an apt description of the typical college existence (to put this in perspective, a recent vice presidential candidate attended six different institutions before graduating). Students enter college with AP or CLEP credits, they may start at community colleges, they take summer classes at their local community college, and they have to cobble their eventual degree together just like I did, in a way that’s far more complex and bureaucratic than navigating one institution’s interdisciplinary studies program.
This envisions a merit-based world where courses, not institutions, are the unit of accreditation. A student could arrange a schedule with MIT’s math courses, StraighterLine’s Economics I, Introductory Spanish at the local community college, and a rhetoric course at a state university. All the courses must be certified as high quality and completely transferable, which could be possible with common learning standards and summative evaluations. Such a world may seem far off, but individual students are already moving in that direction.