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Obama’s shout-out highlights SNHU innovation

Southern New Hampshire University is seizing on a shout-out from President Obama to highlight an innovative online program that saves students money by focusing on competency rather than class time.

Obama mentioned the Manchester-based university this week in a speech proposing a broad new government rating system for colleges that would judge them on their affordability. He also praised SNHU’s College for America program as an innovative approach that “gives students credit for how well they master the material.”

“If you are learning the material faster, you can finish faster, which means you pay less,” Obama said Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y.

The online associate of arts degree program was launched last year and was the first of its kind to be approved for federal financial aid. Offered to working adult students through their employers, the program costs $2,500 per year and has no traditional classes, instructors or grades. Instead, students work through material at their own pace and are tested on their mastery of nine skill areas, such as communication and critical thinking. Advisers point them to free documents and other learning material, and students are encouraged to work with each other on projects.

“This was the very first program in higher education in which federal financial aid dollars are being given for direct measurement of learning, not how much time someone sits in a chair,” SNHU President Paul LeBlanc said yesterday.

The program saw its first graduate after just three months, though the 21-year-old sanitation worker from Ohio wasn’t typical of the 400 students who’ve enrolled since January, LeBlanc said. Most are older students juggling work, education and families, he said, while maybe 10 percent could be considered “sprinters” who are eager to finish as quickly as possible.

“They love the fact that if they’re really good at something, they don’t have to sit in a classroom for 14 or 15 weeks to show it, they can demonstrate mastery and move on,” he said. “But they also like the opposite, which is if you’ve always struggled as a writer, why would we think we can make you a competent writer in a 14-week freshman composition class? So if it takes them a year and a half to get to a level of competency, that’s fine, too.”

SNHU decided to partner with companies such as Anthem, ConAgra Foods and FedEx to reach potential students who would benefit from being surrounded by a supportive environment, LeBlanc said. Many of the competencies are tied to skills that employers say low-level employees often lack, such as the ability to work in teams, he said. And employers are using the program to build a pipeline of workers who could be management material.

Students, meanwhile, were thrilled to hear about Obama’s comments, LeBlanc said.

“It made everyone on campus feel really proud,” he said. “We have a long tradition of innovation, so when he led off the innovation part of his speech with us, everyone was like, ‘Cool!’ ”

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