Feb 15, 2013 (10:02 AM EST)
Online College Offers Academic Rigor At Bargain Prices

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20 Top Masters Degrees For Big Data Analytics Professionals
20 Top Masters Degrees For Big Data Analytics Professionals
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What if you, or your college age child, could earn a degree from a big-name university without the big-name sticker shock that goes with it?

Changing the formula for college affordability is the goal of the American Honors program created by startup Quad Learning. The idea is to combine the cost structure of a community college, and two years of courses taught online by community college professors, with a rigorous academic curriculum that sets students up to transfer into a traditional on-campus program at a respected four-year university.

Quad Learning has attracted more than $11 million in funding, including $3.4 million in seed financing and a $7.9 million Series A venture round announced this week.

"We think the most cost-effective way to a top-tier bachelor's degree is this two-plus-two path," said Phil Bronner, Quad's CEO and co-founder. Part of Quad's job is to establish relationships with four-year colleges who will agree to accept credits from the program, after reviewing its academic standards, he said. The pilot projects for the program are being run at the Community College of Spokane, in Wash., and Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.

[ Can building an associate's degree into an extended high school program better prepare students for high-tech careers? Read IBM-Backed High School Gets Obama Plaudits.]

Since American Honors just launched in 2011, it can't yet point to students who went on to successful four-year college careers, but it can show off a first few who have been accepted at places like Emerson College, Brigham Young University and the University of Oregon.

College students are graduating with an average debt of about $26,500, and those who attend a high-end institution can end up owing much more. Meanwhile, traditional universities are watching demographic and economic trends that could leave them with fewer students beating down their doors, willing and able to pay their full freight, Bronner said. "They need more pathways to enable middle, and even upper-income families, to still be able to afford their schools."

Quad's customers are the community colleges, who hire it to manage the online learning environment, which Bronner describes as "more like Facebook than a traditional [learning management system] such as Blackboard." The environment for classroom discussions resembles Google Hangouts, where students can not only see the professor and onscreen course materials, but see and interact with other students. Courses follow the "flipped classroom" model, where instead of getting an information dump in the form of a lecture, students can view presentations and download notes in advance. Classroom time can then focus more on discussion of the material.

Online education is not necessarily a prerequisite for the two-plus-two business model -- and on-campus honors programs aimed at transitioning students to bachelor's programs are nothing new at community colleges -- but online instruction happens to meet the needs of many students who are attracted to this option, Bonner said. They tend to be interested in "a high-quality program that allows them to stay at home," he said, often for family or financial reasons, or because they want a little more time to mature before heading off to college. These are not necessarily marginal students, either -- Bonner counts valedictorians and a couple of students with perfect math SAT scores among the pilot project participants.

These are also students who have grown up with the Internet and are "as comfortable online, or in some cases, more comfortable online, than in person," Bonner said.

In which case, wouldn't this seem to set them up to transfer into a four-year online education program? Not necessarily, Bonner said. "They may want to have their two years on campus, or they may have saved up enough to go on to a master's degree."

If either of those things happen, American Honors will have opened up greater opportunities for these students at a bargain cost.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr or Google+.

Can data analysis keep students on track and improve college retention rates? Also in the premiere all-digital Analytics' Big Test issue of InformationWeek Education: Higher education is just as prone to tech-based disruption as other industries. (Free with registration.)