Five years ago, Southern New Hampshire University was a 2,000-student private school struggling against declining enrollment, poor name recognition and teetering finances.
Today, it’s the Amazon.com of higher education. The school’s burgeoning online division has 180 different programs with an enrollment of 34,000. Students are referred to as “customers.” It undercuts competitors on tuition. And it deploys data analytics for everything from anticipating future demand to figuring out which students are most likely to stumble.
“We are super-focused on customer service, which is a phrase that most universities can’t even use,” says Paul LeBlanc, SNHU’s president.
The near demise and subsequent rebirth of SNHU offer a glimpse into the crisis facing American higher education. More than a third of American colleges and universities have deteriorating finances, according to a 2012 report. While more Americans find that a college degree is their only ticket to the middle class, fewer institutions are able to provide it at a reasonable cost.
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When LeBlanc took over in 2003, SNHU was struggling. It had poor name recognition and fewer students could afford its rising tuition. When the recession hit, enrollment dipped and it looked as though the school would have to make cuts to stay afloat. LeBlanc, who previously had run an even smaller institution, 300-student Marlboro College in Vermont, thought SNHU’s one hope might be its fledgling online division.
He had long been friends with Clay Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor and author of the groundbreaking book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” which examines the impacts of disruptive technologies on traditional industries. LeBlanc made Christensen an SNHU trustee and consulted extensively with him about embracing online education as a way to escape what seemed like certain decline.
In 2009, instead of cutting, LeBlanc asked the board to double down on the online division. He argued that rapid growth in online could quickly produce new revenues that could save the main campus in Manchester, N.H. “It was a big-gulp moment,” he says.
But he was convinced by Christensen that there were no other options. “The business models implicit in higher ed are broken,” he says. “Public institutions will not see increasing state funding and private colleges will not see ever-rising tuition.”
His solution was to tackle what colleges were doing poorly: graduating students. Half the students who enroll in postsecondary education never get a degree but still accumulate debt. The low completion rate can be blamed partly on the fact that college is still designed for 18-year-olds who are signing up for an immersive, four-year experience replete with football games and beer-drinking.
But those traditional students make up only 20 percent of the postsecondary population. The vast majority are working adults, many with families, whose lives rarely align with an academic timetable.
“College is designed in every way for that 20 percent — cost, time, scheduling, everything,” says LeBlanc. He set out to create an institution for the other 80 percent, one that was flexible and offered a seamless online experience. But in the process, he turned what had been a small New England college with red-brick buildings and a quad into something barely recognizable. There are still nearly 3,000 students enrolled at its campus in Manchester, but the action has shifted to its fast-growing online division.
The SNHU website works like a one-stop storefront for everything from a master’s in creative writing to a degree in sports management. The school spends millions to employ more than 160 “admissions counselors” who man the phones guiding prospective students into the right degree program.
It’s a strategy borrowed from the aggressive recruiting techniques of the University of Phoenix and other for-profit schools. Many of those institutions have come under fire from Congress for gouging students, low completion rates and inferior degree programs.
The similarities don’t end there. Just like many of the for-profit universities, SNHU tries to maximize efficiencies and scale up everything it does to drive down costs. At SNHU, courses are created centrally and then farmed out to a small army of adjuncts hired for as little as $2,200 a class. Those adjuncts have scant leeway in crafting the learning experience.
“The instructor is just there to deliver the content,” says Steve Hodownes, the head of SNHU’s online division, which, he says, “helps us create standardization.”
The online courses are a mixture of readings, practice problems and videos (most under five minutes). Undergrad classes run eight weeks, with a new assignment each week and a final project. Interaction with the instructor (and other students) comes mostly through discussion boards and email. An instructor’s main job is to swoop in when a student is in trouble. Often, they don’t pick up the warning signs themselves. Instead, SNHU’s predictive analytics platform plays watchdog, sending up a red flag to an instructor when a student hasn’t logged on recently or has spent too much time on an assignment. It’s a cookie-cutter approach, and a far cry from what some might recognize as the hallmark of a vibrant education.
Steven Mintz, who heads the University of Texas’ Institute for Transformational Learning, says there are a lot that people might take issue with in the SNHU model, including the highly standardized courses, and adjuncts who act more like coaches than professors. But it’s also designed for an underserved segment of students who flail in the traditional system.
SNHU is clearly determined to push the envelope of online education. It latest gambit is the College for America, which offers college degrees but has no courses and no faculty.
Instead, students are required to demonstrate mastery of different “competencies.” These include the ability to display data by using charts and graphs, understanding of marketing terminology, and even the ability to “distinguish fact from opinion.” Here, the role of adjunct faculty is replaced by “evaluators” who determine whether a student project has cleared the bar. Completion of 120 competencies earns an associate degree.
The most radical element might be the price. One six-month term costs only $1,250, and students can gobble up as much as they want in that time.
“We call it our ‘all-you-can-learn model,’ ” says Kris Clerkin, who runs the division.
LeBlanc says that as odd a university as SNHU might now appear, with its full-throttle marketing and data-driven approach, it will soon blend into the pack. He cites one study that predicts more than 300 nonprofit schools will ramp up their online programs in the next few years.
“Frankly, we would have thought they would have been here already,” he says.
Gabriel Kahn is a professor at the University of Southern California and director of the Future of Journalism at Annenberg Innovation Lab.