Changes in the higher-ed marketplace are forcing colleges to radically rethink their approach to education, and those struggling with the challenge may find inspiration in Southern New Hampshire University, which is the subject of an excellent profile at Slate.For years, SNHU was a traditional, small, residential school in Manchester, NH. But after nearly a decade of declining enrollment and tuition revenue, President Paul LeBlanc decided to take the school in a very different direction, pumping tons of resources into the school’s nascent online education department, which now boasts enrollment 11 times higher than the residential college. Slate explains the strategy:
[LeBlanc’s] 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.
The result is a system which strives for efficiency and cost-effectiveness above all else. Classes are highly standardized, generally taught by low-paid adjunct professors who serve more as guides than teachers, and students’ activities are closely monitored by programs that analyze data to determine where professors should spend most of their time. It may not sound inspiring, but it’s cheap: a four-year degree costs only $35,000, and the school is already experimenting with new ways to lower the price still further.In some ways, this looks like a good way to educate the millions of people who are shut out from, or poorly served by, the current higher-ed system. On the other hand, it moves dangerously close to the education-as-training model we’ve expressed concerns about in the past. Some say the school could devolve into a diploma mill. But as cost pressures make life difficult for small, lower-tier schools like SNHU, we’re likely to see more experiments like this amid mounting pressure to stay afloat. The future of higher ed could look more like this than many expect.