An Oklahoma-based nonprofit offering online courses and accompanying teaching support for $67 per credit hour – nearly half the average $113 per credit hour cost at community colleges – has so far signed up 32 regionally accredited universities in 15 states as part of an aggressive expansion effort.
Tel Education, launched in 2017 also works with 161 high schools nationwide, a key aspect of its model since the high schools then feed prospective students into Tel partner colleges seeking opportunities to connect with college-bound teenagers who may not otherwise consider their institutions.
High school students pay $200 for a class with $100 going back to Tel and $100 going to the college providing the credit. College partners pay Tel $99 per student enrolled. While Tel does not outright forbid its partners from raising the costs of its courses, fewer than 2 percent of institutional partners do so, Tel officials said.
Other online education providers have long occupied this space, with the low-cost StraighterLine standing out as a similar effort. StraighterLine combines a $99 a month membership “with guaranteed credit pathways to accredited colleges, saving students up to 60% on their degrees,” according to its website. Burck Smith, the founder at Straighter Line, said he launched the company in 2008 based on his belief that “online delivery should be cheaper than face to face.” Today Straighter Line has about 67 mostly general education courses in its portfolio. Students access courses through a $99/month subscription. About 150 universities now accept StraighterLine credits for transfer.
A more recent entry into the space is Outlier, a for-credit offering from MasterClass co-founder Aaron Rasmussen. Outlier is a for-profit online class provider and recently forged a five-year deal with the University of Pittsburgh to ensure credits transfer. The controversial deal has been subject to intense scrutiny by the Pennsylvania state legislature. According to the company website, Outlier charges about $400 per course.
Tel Executive Director Rob Reynolds said he considers Tel to be unique in large part because of its nonprofit status.
“We’re trying to prove that you can have truly affordable education models for underserved communities that are sustainable, if you work together,” Reynolds said.
Twenty-six general education courses and three science labs are now included in Tel’s course catalogue. Reynolds says Tel won’t expand its offerings beyond about 35 total courses because the organization’s mission is to help the rural poor and first-generation college students who may assume college is out of reach get started on their degree.
“Let’s say you’re 75 miles from the closest community college, and nobody in your family has gone to college before,” Reynolds said. “The idea of college is not even on the radar, first of all, and the thought of driving someplace to try to register for a course and go through the traditional college registration process is about the same as telling them they’re going to have to fly to a foreign country and learn a language – because it can be that daunting.”
Reynolds, a former literature professor turned educational technologies entrepreneur, said that by contrast registration for Tel’s online courses is nearly automatic. Designed for asynchronous learning and “self-pacing,” the Tel catalogue of general education courses meshes to fit the general education curriculum at most regionally accredited institutions, which are the schools Tel mostly partners with.
For many universities, Reynolds said, the lure of Tel is that it provides “a new way to reach students, to expand the reach of your university. Reach new counties that you’re not in and keep building, from a university perspective, the future.”
Many Tel partner universities are smaller regional or religious institutions with missions focused on reaching and empowering first-generation college students. These institutions also tend to want to become better known in their states and regions.
DeWayne Frazier, Provost at Iowa Wesleyan University, said his university, the oldest in Iowa, began partnering with Tel about 18 months ago because it wanted to offer students in need of extra classes the opportunity to take self-paced courses over winter and summer terms. Frazier said his team came away impressed by the Tel program, which not only included coursework but also “success coaches” who convene students for virtual study halls and track students who are struggling or have stopped their work.
Frazier’s institution recently became a Tel “partner of record,” meaning Iowa Wesleyan professors and Tel instructional designers collaborate to build curriculum and then work together to disseminate it statewide. As part of this partnership, Iowa Wesleyan validates the credits for the jointly designed curriculum and in exchange Tel officials market the program across the state, in places where Iowa Wesleyan isn’t as well-known as it is in its southeastern home base. Frazier said his school receives a “modest financial benefit” from Tel for every student enrolled.
Frazier grew up in Appalachian Kentucky, keenly aware of how limited access to education cuts lives off before they can even get started, which he said makes Tel’s mission-driven approach appealing. He said Iowa Wesleyan has signed up two high schools from elsewhere in the state to offer the classes to initially. The high school students will be allowed to take a maximum of 15-30 credits using the Tel coursework and the Iowa Wesleyan logo. Frazier said the opportunity to build “brand recognition” is invaluable for Iowa Wesleyan and will give the university a chance to stand out.
He said he has been impressed by the robust supports in place for students taking the Tel “self-paced” courses. Frazier said algorithms are built into the program which alert student coaches to difficult moments where others have struggled, prompting the coaches to check in with students. The Iowa Wesleyan faculty has been largely supportive of the Tel partnership, Frazier said, which he credits to the fact that they know there are no plans to use the Tel program to replace standard Iowa Wesleyan coursework.
“This is a recruitment tool and an enhancement tool more than a replacement for traditional education on campus tool,” Frazier said.
Reynolds said he quickly realized that since Tel wasn’t an accredited institution, it needed to partner with universities who were. He decided to build general education courses to align with those being offered by partner universities and combine forces to offer them at a very low cost with the universities offering the curriculum as their own.
He sees the coaching and support services Tel offers as a point of differentiation. At first, Tel focused on reactive support, but soon pivoted to offer much more proactive support in the form of student coaches who are college students. Student coaches are armed with knowledge gleaned from algorithms built out of previous student data showing where courses become most difficult.
“Based on previous data, we know where students tend to struggle,” Reynolds said. “The student coaches are looking every day, throughout the courses, throughout all of our students, and seeing when students are coming to places where they might struggle, where they might find difficulties, and we’re trying to reach them before they ever know they have a problem.”
Pass and completion rates have soared as a result of the student coaching model, Reynolds said. He said that for students who continue to struggle, Tel works closely with both high school and college partners to provide support.
Alden Bass is a theology professor at Oklahoma Christian University, which has been using Tel both to reach high school students earning dual credit as well as students coming back to college after not being successful previously. Bass said that when the Tel partnership was revealed to faculty 18 months ago the announcement was met with great consternation.
“People were worried about job loss, people were worried about quality control and our name being attached to certain courses that we may not have vetted,” Bass said.
Bass said that much of the faculty concern has tapered in part because there has been little visible activity since COVID hit. Bass said that many now recognize the partnership is “a way for us to stay competitive in a changing market” and is part of a larger “effort to standardize online offerings.”
In a state like Oklahoma, where Tel has been working for some time now, they have already built an ecosystem of partner high schools and colleges in the state. Many of the colleges Tel works with are primarily interested in dual enrollment programs with high schools so Tel acts as a bridge between the entities.
Tel courses are meant to scale so dozens of schools might be using the program at the same time. Their software allows for some customization, but the underlying course is uniform, which allows Tel to keep prices so low.
Reynolds said the initial inspiration for Tel came from his goal to offer college credit at a price point where students wouldn’t need to incur debt.
“Where literally, if they could save up a little money, they can start taking a course, they don’t have to get student loans to do anything,” Reynolds said. “That was really our goal. And what does that look like? And so we dug deeper, we tried to figure out what true affordability really is, how much could someone save in three to four months, and then take that first college course.”