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SNHU creates low-cost degree program based on skills

Leaders of Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester think they’ve found a solution to addressing two of the biggest issues plaguing higher education: Cost and accessibility.

Their answer? College for America, a competency-based degree program that costs $2,500 a year.

“The days of families sustaining meaningful work with only a high school degree, those days are pretty much gone,” said Paul LeBlanc, president of SNHU. “So it’s really critical that we make higher education available, and this addresses a number of issues, but a big one is cost and access.”

The pilot phase of the program began in January and will enroll 500 students by June, all aiming to complete an associate’s degree in general studies. Although it’s all completed online, it’s not like other online degree programs. Competency-based means students must pass tests on a specific set of skills and points of knowledge, rather than completing a specific number of credit hours. That also means students can complete the program at their own pace. Although it’s meant to take two years, about 20 percent of students are in the “sprinter” phase, and could complete the degree in as little as six months, said Executive Director Kris Clerkin.

“It’s really opening up higher education to a whole new audience, to an audience of people who are a little older than the average student, who already have some knowledge and skills and can personalize it,” she said. “Because it’s competency-based, they can take on what they feel like they can do.”

College for America became a one-of-a-kind program when it was the first competency-based program to be certified by the U.S. Department of Education for financial aid funding last month. The program costs $1,250 per six months. In the pilot phase, the program is only taking students from about 20 partner employers, such as Globe Manufacturing in Pittsfield, Fed-Ex and Panera Bread. Although the program is in its early phase, there are already major plans to expand into new specialities and four-year degrees.

Working with employers ensures students can still feel like they are part of a community and can help each other work through the program, LeBlanc said. The target audience of College for America is adults who have had little to no college experience, so having a network of peers to go through the program with is key.

“The mutual support that’s afforded by having other people in your workplace also enrolled is really pretty powerful,” he said.

Faculty at SNHU have compiled the course materials from free content, which helps keep the cost down. There are no professors, but each student gets a coach at the beginning who helps them develop a plan for which competencies to complete first.

Students must complete 120 competencies in nine different clusters, ranging from quantitative and communication skills to business essentials. The goal of this style of education is for students to be able to identify to employers exactly what skills they can complete, which advocates say is a better measurement than a GPA and credit hours. Many of the tasks students must complete mimic real-world scenarios.

For example, in one scenario students are given a half-completed spreadsheet and told the person working on it before them made errors. They pass the competency when the spreadsheet is properly completed. Working on this project demonstrates their quantitative skills and business understanding. This benefits employers because they know exactly what the students can do when they hire them, LeBlanc said.

The focus on competency leads some critics to say the program is merely vocational, LeBlanc said. But some of the competencies do focus on material that one might typically associate with the humanities, he said. For example, one competency requires students to read about art curation then curate their own collections and explain their thought process.

As for expansion, a four-year program will be in place by April 2014, LeBlanc said. The university is also working with some health care systems to design an associate’s degree with a focus on non-clinical health care. In the future, there could be degrees with other focuses, such as retail. Eventually, four-year degrees in special disciplines may be possible, he said.

“With approval in hand, we’re going to go fast and hard,” LeBlanc said.

One of the employers participating now is Globe Manufacturing in Pittsfield. About 40 Globe employees are involved in the program, said Robert Freese, owner and senior vice president of marketing. The opportunity to have a more educated workforce is important to the company as well as the employees, he said.

“We’re excited because Globe is a worldwide organization,” he said. “Having an educated workforce and highly technical workforce is really important to our continued success.”

Globe also strives to hire internally, so completing a college degree will give these employees more room for advancement. But beyond education, Freese said he’s also noticed a behavioral change in the employees participating in the program. Working toward a degree is building self confidence, he said. Without this program, many of the workers wouldn’t have the money to ever get a higher education.

“They’re blazing brand new territory here. They just really get it, what’s required in today’s business environment,” Freese said. The chance for “folks at the production level to gain access to this sort of education is just second to none.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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