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 — which has a physical campus in Brunswick — offers 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.
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.”
LeBlanc set out to create an institution for the 80 percent of post-secondary students who aren’t enrolling full-time immediately following high school. Many are working adults with families whose lives rarely align with an academic timetable. The institution would be 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.
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, especially on weekends, guiding prospective students into the right degree program. Click on an ad for the MBA program and you get a phone call from a counselor in less than nine minutes. If someone asks about transfer credits, SNHU tracks down their old transcripts and pays the administrative fees itself.
It’s a strategy borrowed from the aggressive recruiting techniques of the University of Phoenix and other for-profit schools.
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, online 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 themselves 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 is 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.
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.
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, it’s partly explained by the fact that most SNHU students are part time and take even longer to finish.
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.