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For SNHU, an opportunity  to innovate

Southern New Hampshire University has grown to be the largest institution in the state, now serving nearly 30,000 students, and is the fastest growing university in the country. It also made higher education history in April when its College for America degree program became the first to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education for “direct assessment of learning.” That is, students complete the degree by mastering 120 competencies – claims we make for what they know – instead of three-credit-hour courses. Untethered to time, the program’s very first graduate went from start to completion of an associate’s degree in just three months. The program charges only $1,250 per six months of attendance, removing cost as a barrier to getting a degree. The program has received widespread attention.

In fact, a long history of innovative educational programming earned SNHU the No. 12 spot on Fast Company magazine’s 2012 “World’s Most Innovative Companies List,” alongside the likes of Apple Computer, Google, and HBO. It was the only university included. On the main campus, bursting with record enrollments and new buildings and programs, three-year degree options have been a staple for more than 15 years. At SNHU’s satellite campus in Salem, the SNHU Advantage Program allows students to complete the first two years of their degree at only $10,000 per year. A recent partnership with the renowned Berklee College of Music has resulted in a new MBA in Music Business. Close collaboration with the New Hampshire Community College has resulted in a new online RN to BSN and MSN programs. SNHU has also received recognition for serving more veterans than any New Hampshire institution. Recent graduates have gone on to begin careers with the Boston Celtics, the Napa Valley wine industry, and IBM, while others have begun graduate or professional study at Smith College, Dartmouth College, and the University of Michigan Law School.

How did we transform the university during such a difficult economic period and so much upheaval in higher education? Our thinking was very much informed by Harvard Business School innovation guru, Clayton Christensen, a member of the SNHU board, and his research on disruptive innovation. Among the lessons we took to heart:

We became very clear-minded about each student segment we serve and what they need from us. For example, students on our beautiful main campus in Manchester come to us for an education and a coming-of-age experience. So we have invested in more full-time faculty, more opportunities for service learning and study abroad and all the things that have to do with mentoring, opportunity and support of young people. In contrast, our online program (now the fourth largest in the country) is very much focused on working adults with busy lives, often some years removed from their last academic experience. So we have become consumed with high levels of service and support for their success.

We reorganized ourselves so that each academic/business unit of the university is aligned with the very particular needs of the student segment it serves. This is probably the most difficult challenge for change-averse institutions, but anything less results in a compromised ability to serve students. This means rethinking policies, procedures, systems, recognition and reward structures, and more.

We took to heart the financial challenges facing students and worked to find new models to reduce cost to them. For our four-year degree program, we kept tuition increases in check and made more financial aid available (and as a result our students have lower average debt than the state’s public flagship university). Our three-year program shaves 25 percent off the cost of a traditional four-year degree. The aforementioned SNHU Advantage program offers even more dramatic savings. Our online program provides a bachelor’s degree for just $38,000. College for America removes cost as a barrier at a maximum of $2,500 per year. Each choice means trade-offs for students, but if the challenge to a student is cost, we have an option available.

There are other macro-forces at work in higher education that can be usefully harnessed to innovate, including technology. The disaggregation of functions, allowing institutions to rethink how they get things done, has been much discussed. But the real core of our success has been to keep students front and center and a willingness on our part to rethink who we are so they can be who they aspire to be.

(Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University and founder of College for America.)

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