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November 24. 2012 10:50PM

SNHU to boost online offerings

MANCHESTER - Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, is quickly filling up the white grease board in his office as he attempts to diagram the progress of what has become the fastest growing university in the country, if you count online students. And he certainly does.

The private, not-for-profit university may only have about next level with the launch of College for America - a Web-based approach to higher education whereby the school will partner with employers to develop competency-based programs that reward proven skills rather than grades on a transcript.

College for America will offer a two-year degree for only $5,000, most of it funded by financial aid or employer contributions. The idea of an associate degree in general studies from an accredited university, with a focus on business administration, at such a low cost, is attracting a lot of attention.

When LeBlanc talks about the possibility of a bachelor's degree for $10,000, people take notice.

The CFA program was approved in September by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the regional accrediting association that establishes standards for all levels of education, from pre-K to doctoral. It's the first program of its kind to be considered by the federal Department of Education for Title 4 approval, which would make students in the program eligible for Pell Grants and other forms of federal financial aid.

Title 4 approval has traditionally been predicated on the credit hour - the three-credit course - but there is a provision in the law designed to support assessment of skills and competency. "We are waiting eagerly to see if the Department of Education will approve it (the CFA) on that basis," said LeBlanc. "We have passed their preliminary review, and we submitted at their behest. We didn't go in uninvited."

Even with Department of Education approval still pending, several major employers have already signed up for CFA programs and expect to collectively enroll a few hundred students in the first semester. The college's charter partners in New Hampshire include Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Riverwoods Retirement Community in Exeter. The city of Memphis, Federal Express and ConAgra Foods have also signed deals for their employees.

The CFA is employer based and has no "retail" component for now, but if it grows at the same rate as the college's conventional online programs, the sky's the limit. LeBlanc points out that the school's traditional for-credit online courses with faculty instructors grew from a few hundred students five years ago to 23,000 today. With the right corporate partnerships, LeBlanc believes CFA could be enrolling 100,000 to 200,000 students in a few years.

Getting national attention

His predictions are not to be shrugged off, given SNHU's track record in the past decade. The school has been getting so much attention for its growth in online enrollment and revenue that LeBlanc spends much of his time on the speaking circuit these days, explaining how a small, regional university grew annual revenues from $32 million in 2009 to $128 million in 2013 and is on track to earn $200 million next year.

The school was recently featured in a Forbes special section on innovation and was recognized by FAST magazine as one of the 12 most innovative companies in the world - the only university to make the list. LeBlanc will be the keynote speaker at Educause 2013, the premier information technology convention for higher education.

He is quick to share the credit with his associates at SNHU and to point out that the university had a culture of innovation when he arrived, in 2003. "I didn't bring innovation to the university. It was here, and I was able to build on that tradition," he said. "Long before I arrived, SNHU launched a three-year undergraduate degree, and it's only now getting the proper attention and celebration because all of the sudden three-year programs are all the rage."

Online learning is certainly all the rage, as well, but until SNHU came along, it was largely the domain of big for-profit online players such as the University of Phoenix, Kaplan or DeVry.

"The thing that many of them feared for a long time was that a nonprofit would figure out how to develop the same operational prowess," LeBlanc said. "We think that given the choice between the two, the market will always go for the not-for-profit, as long as they can be as good."

SNHU has paid a lot of attention to developing that operational prowess. While most traditional brick-and-mortar colleges or universities have dipped their toes into online with a smattering of offerings controlled mostly by existing faculty, SNHU dove in with both feet, set up an independent online operation in a separate location in the Manchester Millyard, and funded it aggressively.

"We moved (the online operation) downtown almost six years ago with under 25 people," he said. "Today we have 350. We are one of the best employment stories in Manchester. These are good-paying jobs - marketing people, data analytics, media communications, academic people."

The traditional online operation, known as the College of Online and Continuing Education, set the stage for the College For America project, but just as the online operation was separated from the main campus, the CFA will also have its own space and its own staff.

Different objectives

Back at the grease board, LeBlanc draws images to represent each of the school's three student groups - the traditional on-campus student; the online student; and the new CFA student. Each has different goals that the university is trying to meet.

The traditional student population is not likely to grow much larger than the current 2,050 students, LeBlanc said, because that is the optimum size for the "coming-of-age" experience that most postsecondary school students are looking for. Those students have benefited from the school's online strategy, as the revenue growth has poured millions into the SNHU endowment, scholarships, financial aid and buildings.

"We've increased our dollars invested back into supporting students by 65 percent in three years," he said. "We're building a new library right now on the main campus. So it's not just online growth. The main campus has grown tremendously. We have 40 students in local hotels again this year, and 80 students in converted lounges or triples. We're constructing a new 300-bed dormitory."

A four-year degree for those students will cost more than $110,000.

Students in the College of Online and Continuing Education are a different group with different goals. They're looking for career advancement and credentials. "This is the 30-year-old typically who has two priorities in their education - family and career - someone who has served in the military, has been in the workplace. They came of age a long time ago." Their degree will cost them about $38,000.

The College for America targets the lowest people on the corporate food chain - people for whom higher education has traditionally been out of reach, the person making a modest hourly wage, looking for an on-ramp to move up in their company. In an economy where 70 percent of all new jobs are going to require a two-year degree or better, they are in danger of being left behind. That's where the $10,000 degree comes in.

Making big claims

"We make two big claims to employers," LeBlanc said. "If you work with us, we will educate your employees at much lower cost, and we will stand behind the claims we make on their learning like no other institution in the country."

The students can work at their own pace, with no set end or start times for semesters or course offerings. They work with instructional materials created by SNHU personnel from a variety of sources and in a variety of media, with peer and mentor support from the online community and in the workplace. At various points in the learning process, the work of the student is evaluated by an expert in the field, who may or may not be an SNHU faculty member. If the work meets the college standards, the student moves on to the next level.

The writing program, for example, starts with this competency: "Can write a paragraph." It then moves on to "Can write a five-paragraph essay," and several competencies later ends with "Can write an appropriately researched and documented argumentative text."

Not only does the university certify that the student can do those things, it also provides online proof in the form of a virtual portfolio containing the student's work in text, audio or video formats for review by an incumbent or potential employer.

The College for America isn't designed to supplant traditional online offerings with their paid instructional materials and distinguished faculty, and it certainly isn't designed to replace the on-campus college experience for American youth. It is testing a new model that extends access to higher education across the economic spectrum and ties outcomes directly to the needs of employers.

Most of all, CFA wants to prove that higher education can deliver on its traditional promise.

"We are seeing too many people pass through higher ed who can't do what they claim they can do," LeBlanc said. "Traditionally, we were OK with the transcript because of the notion that the traditional college degree meant something. We assumed if you had a college degree you could write, you could do math. We assumed if you had a college degree you had some sense of the scientific process and method. People don't assume that anymore."

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Dave Solomon may be reached at dsolomon@unionleader.com.

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