In just five years, Southern New Hampshire University has gone from a struggling 2,000-student private school to become the “Amazon.com of higher education” with an enrollment of 34,000. University President Paul LeBlanc recognized that the university’s online division had the potential for rapid growth and could produce new revenues.
“The business models implicit in higher education are broken,” LeBlanc said in an article in Slate magazine. “Public institutions will not see increasing state funding and private colleges will not see ever-rising tuition.”
The problem, according to LeBlanc, was an immersive educational system designed to accommodate 18-year-olds instead of students who are working adults with schedules that rarely fit into academic schedules. The commitment to the SNHU online division produced a web site that offers 180 programs and full-time admissions counselors who will call prospective students within minutes after they click on a program.
The online courses run for eight weeks and combine readings, problems, and videos, with weekly assignments and a final project. Instructors use predictive analytics to keep an eye on students’ progress and identify those who are having trouble.
Critics say it’s a cookie-cutter approach and question exactly what kind of education the university is delivering. Faculty complain the television advertising is too slick and worry their jobs may be in jeopardy, but SNHU enrollment figures suggest it certainly seems to be working.
The university has already started to expand the program, offering degrees requiring students to master different competencies instead of working through courses and with faculty. One term costs $1,250 and students who complete 120 competencies earn an associate’s degree.
“We are super-focused on customer service, which is a phrase that most universities can’t even use,” LeBlanc said.