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Winter for Higher-Ed
Is the College of the Future in New Hampshire?

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.

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  • Andrew Allison

    “Half the students who enroll in post-secondary education never get a degree but still accumulate debt” is the nub. The fact is that students who are not equipped for post-secondary education are being enrolled for the revenue they bring. Simply put, the Academy has prostituted itself.

    • ljgude

      Yes, it has degenerated from an essential and healthy part of our society to a racket.

  • ljgude

    I did a research project on distance education here in Australia about 10 years ago and it was clear to me as an American (Hew Hampshire raised as it happens) that Australian had developed ways of coping with teaching to remote students that simply had not developed in the US because remoteness in Australia tends to begin where it leaves off in the US. From the School of the Air reaching children on remote stations (ie ranches) by radio from the 1920s to teaching students at technical and university level in extreme isolation such as remote Aboriginal communities where all difficulties must be overcome with no physical presence between teacher and student whatsoever. The best programs I found in my research were meeting student learning objective at remarkably low cost per student hour. So to my eyes what the plucky folks at SNHU are doing is finding the nexus between online delivery and low cost and given what I have seen in Australia they are really on the right track. GO SNHU!

  • Boritz

    I once suggested to the university where I did graduate work that they allow a course offered remotely by another university to fulfill a 3 semester hour requirement. The answer then was absolutely not: Remote courses are substandard at best and not actually real coursework at all. Find a brick and mortar solution. How times changes.

  • ljgude

    As someone with a decent education, as opposed to mere training I understand the difference, but eduction has deteriorated in another way that is much discussed – indoctrination versus teaching people to think for themselves. When I graduated from High School in 1960 I understood high school as indoctrination and looked forward to college as a place where I was going to be taught how to think for myself. True to form the book that undergraduates at both Dartmouth and Columbia were being asked to read in 1960 as a general introduction to their undergraduate work was C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures which presented the challenge of the increasing cultural distance between the sciences and the humanities. We were being thrown a macro cultural problem in a form comprehensible to recent high school graduates and asked to wrestle with it. There was discussion, but not answers and the hope that as we grew and matured we would find answers that our elders felt was eluding their best efforts to satisfactorily resolve. Today apparently way too much undergraduate education has become indoctrination – aka political correctness. I have even read that there are political cadres in undergraduate schools who’s job it is to suppress deviant thinking. I was recently reading a history of the emergence of the modern mind and how difficult it was to overcome the static ideas of scholasticism that dominated the universities of the 17th century, Even Newton had to overcome the notion that much of the curriculum at Trinity was based on the authority of Aristotle rather than observation of nature. While political correctness is not the same it seems to me it is a similar phenomena in that its consequence is to produce closed minds. So my point is this: much of what masquerades as education today is actually lower and less useful than unabashed training such as leads to a certificate in specific computer skills. The former disables minds, the latter produces marketable skills. If all SNHU is doing is packaging political correctness in a more economical form then it adds little social good beyond the socialization that can be accomplished at the secondary level. America under-does technical training and overdoes expensive ‘finishing school’ scholasticism. We still have the top tier where real education is take place (I trust) but we actually need much more and better technical training. A good example from my own experience is the son of the best mechanic I have ever met. His son was spotted working on large diesel motors by Mercedes and he received an offer of training at company expense in their own US training program. In Germany they grow their Diesel mechanics within the German education system which has had a focus on producing highly competent technical staff since Bismarck’s day. In the US Mercedes has to rope and tie their own.

    • qet

      There can be no doubt whatsoever that what you say is true, that American colleges and universities are not only ideologically Left, but visibly, profoundly and aggressively– one might even say proudly–so. Faculty and administrators hardly even bother nowadays to dissemble this fact, seeing it as they do as a virtue. This phenomenon has been building for almost 50 years and is, I believe, at its peak, and so I expect to see that trend reverse itself (gradually) in the coming years and decades. Despite Via Meadia’s equivocations on the “vocational training versus traditional education” nature of current developments like SNHU and MOOCs, there can also be no doubt that their appeal and their value lie in the vocational technical training. For starters, it is virtually impossible to assign economic values to what we all think of as “education”; and the entire debate is framed solely in terms of economics. Secondly, the predominant clientele of working adults with families (and bills) are there to increase their earning power; they need what the Scarecrow in Wizarrd of Oz needed–a diploma, and they need it as cheaply and as conveniently as they can get it. I am not denigrating such people; I was fortunate enough to be in the 20%, and while my education has great personal value to me, it cannot readily be assigned a dollar value, and that is the alpha and the omega of this issue today.

  • UnmutualOne

    Do you really think people are going to choose to go to school for master’s degrees or doctorates to become low-paid adjuncts for these colleges of the future? Do you think those of us who have already gone $60K into debt for a Ph.D. are going to settle for low-paid adjunct jobs with no possible chance of ever becoming a tenured professor?

    I, for one, would rather be a barista than grade crappy freshmen writing for adjunct wages. Been there, did that, but only as a stepping stone.

    Your university of the future will wind up attracting the same quality teachers as K-12. And I think we all know the general quality of K-12 teachers.

    • qet

      I assume you must mean public school K-12, because my experience with private schools is that their teachers–more and more of whom are PhD’s, by the way (like my own brother, who went through the same agon as you)–are, as teachers, almost to a man/woman, outstanding. And while I have met many outstanding public school K-12 teachers, my experience has been that they are a minority.

      • UnmutualOne

        Yes, definitely public school teachers. Private school teachers often do not need credentials, meaning their IQs have not been lowered by Ed Schools.

        I am a university professor. My “C” students are the ones who are going into education.

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