If you’re looking for that old American dream of education, consider Paul LeBlanc. His mother was a factory worker, his dad a stonemason who cleaned offices on the weekends. LeBlanc, one of five siblings, was the only one to graduate from college. This year, one of his daughters won a Rhodes scholarship. “When I look at my mother and my daughter,” says LeBlanc, “the missing link is education.”
Now, as president of Southern New Hampshire University, LeBlanc is trying to supply that missing link for a new generation, by using technology to transform an 80-year-old college into a modern education powerhouse. Founded in 1932 as the New Hampshire School of Accounting and Secretarial Science, SNHU was a modest school when LeBlanc joined as president in 2003, recognized for its culinary arts, business, and justice programs. Its online program was, as LeBlanc puts it, “a sleepy operation on a nondescript corner of the main campus. I thought it was squandering an opportunity.”
That little operation has turned into SNHU’s Center for Online and Continuing Education (COCE), the largest online-degree provider in New England. Its 10,600 students are enrolled in 120 graduate and undergraduate programs and specialties, everything from a sustainability-focused MBA to a creative-writing BA. Fifty more programs will be launched this year, and the COCE recently tested TV ads in national markets such as Raleigh, North Carolina; Milwaukee; and Oklahoma City. LeBlanc hopes that by 2014 SNHU will boast the country’s biggest online not-for-profit education system.
The opportunity is huge. Particularly in this recession, older and working students are seeking high-quality degrees that are affordable and available anytime from anywhere. For-profit online higher-ed companies such as University of Phoenix and DeVry have been plagued by scandal, new government regulations, sky-high default rates, and plunging enrollment numbers. And few not-for-profit universities are up to speed online. VP of online marketing Don Alava joined SNHU from another university where, he says, “an online application would sit on someone’s desk for a week. That’s not going to work for adults who are used to the service provided by companies like Amazon.”
Unlike many educators, LeBlanc understands customer service. He hired Steve Hodownes, the former CEO of an online customer-relationship company, to retool SNHU’s operations in the style of Zappos and Amazon. “We have to pick up the phone, treat our students as customers, respect their opinions,” says Yvonne Simon, a former ed-tech entrepreneur who is now director of online programs. Incoming applicants, half of whom qualify for federal Pell Grants, work with advisers who stay with them throughout their careers. A new software system tracks a slew of factors that predict student success, from how long it’s been since their last college class to the length of their average post on a class discussion board. It then flags advisers if a student is slipping. Teacher involvement online is tracked as well. The attention to quality control has paid off: The percentage of first-year undergrads who sign up for a second year has doubled since 2008, up from 35% to 69%.
All this activity is centered in a cavernous loft in downtown Manchester, five miles from the physical campus, where 2,250 undergrads paying $27,000 a year enjoy a standard college education amid redbrick and white-columned buildings nestled into 300 hilly, leafy acres on the Merrimack River. “I did a lot of research and read that universities with campuses had more respect in the job market,” says Nathan Yates, a graduate finance student who is getting his SNHU.edu degree from Virginia. “That’s what I was looking for.” COCE’s booming revenue, which is up to $74 million annually from $10 million when Simon came on board in 2007, helps subsidize the main campus. Like most not-for-profit colleges, SNHU runs at a loss, but doesn’t need to impose the double-digit annual tuition increases that are standard elsewhere.
LeBlanc, a disciple of innovation guru (and former grad-school colleague) Clayton Christensen, is constantly looking for new ways to deliver an SNHU education. College Unbound, which started last fall, connects just a dozen first-generation students, drawn largely from the Big Picture network of charter schools, to design their own learning plans around internships, spending as much time in the world as in class and earning their bachelor’s degree in just three years. “Unlike a traditional classroom, where the teacher gives you the textbooks and the assignments, we have to frame our own essential questions and get all the information we need on our own,” says 18-year-old Ebony Byas, who is exploring child psychology while interning at an Easter Seals day-care center.
SNHU, meanwhile, is busy questioning the shape of its own future. “We want to create the business model that blows up our current business model,” LeBlanc says, “because if we don’t, someone else will.” The brand-new Innovation Lab headed by Simon intends to roll out a new degree program this fall. Based in part on free Creative Commons-licensed open educational resources that can be delivered on e-readers, the program will be self-paced and will give students access to multiple kinds of support: peers online, faculty experts, and people from their local communities. “You’re a line worker at Stonyfield Farm taking a math course trying to finish your college degree,” LeBlanc offers by way of example. “We will work with Stonyfield to have someone in its accounting department do brown-bag-lunch tutoring.” LeBlanc envisions making the learning materials available for free, much like MIT’s Open Courseware; students would pay only for faculty time if they need it and for competency-based assessments, including portfolio reviews, in order to get course credit.
SNHU’s success has attracted potential partners who could help spread this model. Some states are talking to SNHU about possibly offering free public higher education to their citizens; local high schools and community colleges as far away as North Carolina are exploring dual-enrollment programs; and the I-Lab team has joined an international university partnership in New Zealand. It all adds up to a brand-new kind of education, one that LeBlanc’s parents would barely recognize.