I always enjoyed my time
At ACHE spent with staff members from Southern New Hampshire University. I knew they were on to something a few years ago, but nothing like this. From Gabriel Kahn, writing in Slate.
The near demise and subsequent rebirth of SNHU 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.”
His solution was to tackle what colleges were doing poorly: graduating students. Half the students who enroll in post-secondary 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 post-secondary 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 (the men’s soccer team won the NCAA Division II championship last season), but the action has shifted to its fast-growing online division.