How Tiny, Struggling Southern New Hampshire University has become the Amazon of Higher Education

Getting schooled.
Jan. 2 2014 11:33 PM

The Amazon of Higher Education

How tiny, struggling Southern New Hampshire University has become a behemoth.

(Continued from Page 1)

Even on campus, LeBlanc has his share of critics. Alumni object that SNHU’s slick TV ads cheapen the name by making it seem like it’s the same ilk as Kaplan or University of Phoenix. And some faculty worry that he is trying to usurp their role through the reliance on adjuncts and online teaching tools.

It’s also difficult to determine just how strong an education SNHU is delivering. An online forum offers a decidedly mixed picture, with one review calling it “a great experience,” while another claims, “It is not quite a degree mill, but they give out 4.0's for merely completing the work.” A tally of nearly 4,000 recent graduates conducted by the university showed satisfaction was increasing steadily and that 95 percent would recommend SNHU.

One issue that vexes SNHU is that it goes after many of the same students who are winding up at places like the University of Phoenix—adults, often from the lower middle class, who can’t fit in at a traditional college. That means it is often trying to explain why an online education delivered from a New England nonprofit university is better than its for-profit equivalent.

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LeBlanc insists that SNHU’s sole focus is on serving students. As a nonprofit, he says, SNHU can deliver a higher quality experience because it doesn’t have to satisfy shareholders trying to squeeze out profits. “If I need to put $1 million into academics, I do it,” he says. “But if I run a for-profit, I can’t put in that $1 million because it will hit the bottom line.”

Certainly, SNHU comes out ahead on price. An online student with no transfer credits can get the equivalent of a four-year bachelor’s degree for about $37,000. A comparable degree at University of Phoenix runs about $52,000.

SNHU boasts six-year online graduation rates of about 50 percent for bachelor’s students. While LeBlanc concedes that’s still abysmal—“Would you accept a 50 percent success rate for surgery? For construction?”—it’s partly explained by the fact that most SNHU students are part time and take even longer to finish.

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’s 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.

The program is just getting started, with around 300 students. Their first graduate completed the program in 100 days, though most are expected to take a couple of years.

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.

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