MasterClass co-founder's Outlier.org raises $30M for affordable, virtual college courses

Anthony Ha
·3-min read

Outlier.org — a startup offering intro-level college courses online at a relatively affordable price — is announcing that it has raised $30 million in Series B funding.

The startup was founded by CEO Aaron Rasmussen, previously co-founder at MasterClass (which Axios reports is raising new funding at a $2.5 billion valuation). Like Rasmussen's old company, Outlier offers beautifully shot online courses; unlike MasterClass, students can actually earn college credit.

When Outlier launched in the fall of 2019, Rasmussen said his goal was to make a college education more affordable and accessible — though he also told me that Outlier is only focused on bringing intro-level classes online, not the entire curriculum.

This idea seems even more appealing during a pandemic, when a completely "normal" college experience isn't really available to anyone. In fact, Rasmussen said there's been a surge in interest from universities that want to partner with Outlier, especially since some colleges are struggling to attract students — so with difficult financial choices ahead, they can use Outlier to supplement their offerings.

"We've learned that many universities love the idea of high-quality intro classes for students," he said. "That was a question mark for us, [but] many say, 'We want to focus on upper-level courses, so this is a great way to keep people on track.' "

To that end, Outlier has hired Anjuli Gupta as its head of partnerships. Gupta previously led university partnerships at Coursera, and Rasmussen suggested the company could work with high schools and employers, not just universities.

Of course, the pandemic has created some challenges for Outlier as well. Initially, in order to continue producing its classes, Rasmussen said the company was shipping its instructors "literally 500 pounds of cinematography equipment." Now it has developed a production method where a small crew sets everything up, then the instructor teaches on the set alone.

"It’s just you, a motion-controlled dolly and little pieces of tape telling you where to push all the buttons," he said. "Then [the crew] remotely runs the cameras, you’re hitting record and they can see everything coming in through the feeds, so you're remotely directed."

Outlier currently offers six classes, including Calculus I, Microeconomics, Astronomy and Philosophy, with a goal of expanding to 14 by the end of 2022. Rasmussen said the company is now allowing students to join courses in new cohorts every two weeks — so even though the lectures are pre-recorded, you're still moving through the class with a group of fellow students. And Outlier has built a variety of custom student support tools — for example, the company can identify when a student is "falling behind" and reach out to offer more support.

The startup has also expanded its partnership with the University of Pittsburgh into a five-year agreement, with students receiving credit from the school and faculty at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown providing academic oversight. (Though it seems that some faculty members are unhappy about the arrangement.) They've also partnered to offer $3.8 million worth of scholarships to 1,000 frontline workers.

Each Outlier course costs $400, which the company says is approximately one-sixth the cost of a traditional college class. Still, Rasmussen said, "I couldn't have afforded it when I was growing up," so he's trying to find ways to make the program even more affordable — hence the scholarships, as well as monthly payment plans with Klarna (Outlier covers the interest on student payments).

The new funding was led by GV (formerly known Google Ventures), with participation from Unusual Ventures, GSV, Harrison Metal and Gaingels, bringing Outlier's total funding to $46 million.

"We’re inspired by Outlier.org’s mission to increase educational access and equity, and to reduce student debt,” said GV's John Lyman in a statement. “We strongly believe in Aaron Rasmussen and the founding team’s vision to provide better access to more affordable education for hundreds of millions of students around the globe.”