“The instructor is just there to deliver the content”
July 7, 2014 9:59 AM   Subscribe

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), a small non-profit school, has gained a reputation for its adoption of for-profit marketing and operating techniques, relying on prolific advertising and a faculty of low-paid adjuncts to teach its online courses. More recently the school earned the unenviable title of "The Amazon of Higher Education".

The school's president Paul LeBlanc has responded to these stories multiple times to defend SNHU's business practices, criticizing the author of the Slate article by writing:
He might have then added something from the lengthy details we gave him about how we actually work to ensure quality: the millions spent on bolstering academic staff, the data analytics we have for academics, our work on outcomes, the weekly external oversight, and the predictive work we do, but that would not have fit the narrative. In fact, I’d challenge any traditional institution (after all, that’s the implicit comparison he is making) to match what we do in terms of quality oversight, including his own USC.
Indeed, their unique approach is beneficial for some; their focus on innovation may allow more people from lower-income backgrounds to access higher education. And even with their large team of adjunct faculty, SNHU have consistently been rated one of the best colleges to work for by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
posted by Librarypt (25 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Let me guess, "Best Value" by News and World Report?
posted by oceanjesse at 10:03 AM on July 7, 2014

I wonder if they'll give me a job
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 10:05 AM on July 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

I took a single class there before it was cool and before it even called itself a "university". As far as the requirements placed on students, even then it was pretty Mickey Mouse; but the professor was pretty sharp, relaxed, had taught internationally, and had lots of time for students, so I was still able to get a great deal out of the experience. (No idea if any of that's been successfully extended to the online incarnation, or if it was even true of the other professors and other classes offered at the time I was there.)

Oh plus, the biggest perk of physically attending a class there was that it was sort of half-way between a vocational school and a four year college and included a culinary school, and there was a little shop that sold the work of the pastry-chefs-in-training and other students. Often as not the sort of mistakes they made would be to add too much chocolate to things...
posted by XMLicious at 10:16 AM on July 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

"The Amazon.com of higher education?" So my degree is delivered free in 6-10 days, at the expense of the health, sanity, and self-respect of some desperate minimum-wage warehouse drones in another state?

Well that actually sounds more likely and futuristically-dystopian than I expected when I started.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:18 AM on July 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

"The Amazon.com of higher education?" So my degree is delivered free in 6-10 days, at the expense of the health, sanity, and self-respect of some desperate minimum-wage warehouse drones in another state?

It's tossed like a newspaper on your front porch by a literal drone.
posted by univac at 10:26 AM on July 7, 2014

Go Penmen!
posted by Greg Nog at 10:28 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

and a faculty of low-paid adjuncts to teach its online courses.

There's your answer. Oh, wait, mainstream universities do this too.
posted by Melismata at 10:29 AM on July 7, 2014 [9 favorites]

When in college, I had the opportunity to visit many friends who attended top-tier universities. I noted that, during lectures, labs, and whatnot, the doors were not locked. So the knowledge wasn't secret, and wasn't privileged. What was? The people, both students and professors. The network mattered more than the knowledge. I don't think I'm telling you anything shocking at this point.

The for-profits like SNHU, Kaplan, Strayer, U of Phoenix, et al. have one real hope for their students: that there are enough extant graduates to create a vast network of alumni who will help new graduates get jobs. The for-profit universities seem to be doing well on this score in terms of alumni volume. Whether that can translate into useful, fruitful, fulfilling work for their graduates is an open question.
posted by aureliobuendia at 10:31 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Let me guess, "Best Value" by News and World Report?

No. Not in the top 50, at least.

I don't know anything about SNHU, but the idea of a traditional nonprofit university co-opting the customer service and analytics practices of the for-profits while maintaining a focus on quality of education is inherently appealing. There are a lot of quality control problems with the online learning offerings I've seen from nonprofits; there's a lot to be said for bringing them up to the standard of quality one would expect of a contemporary web-based service enterprise.

Also, this (from the 'gained a reputation' link) sounds like a good idea, and an innovative strategy to integrate MOOC-type instruction with traditional academics:
Based in part on free Creative Commons-licensed open educational resources that can be delivered on e-readers, the program will be self-paced and will give students access to multiple kinds of support: peers online, faculty experts, and people from their local communities. "You're a line worker at Stonyfield Farm taking a math course trying to finish your college degree," LeBlanc offers by way of example. "We will work with Stonyfield to have someone in its accounting department do brown-bag-lunch tutoring." LeBlanc envisions making the learning materials available for free, much like MIT's Open Courseware; students would pay only for faculty time if they need it and for competency-based assessments, including portfolio reviews, in order to get course credit.
Now, the "army of adjuncts"... Well, I'd have to see actual numbers to form an opinion on how that compares to the state-of-the-are in brink-and-mortar nonprofits.

The for-profits like SNHU, Kaplan, Strayer, U of Phoenix, et al.

SNHU is a nonprofit institution. See the 'responded' link in the post where LeBlanc emphasizes the importance of this distinction.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:36 AM on July 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

Is SNHU a for-profit? OP says it's a non-profit but with for-profit marketing strategies.
posted by Melismata at 10:37 AM on July 7, 2014

jinx mr_roboto!
posted by Melismata at 10:37 AM on July 7, 2014

I wanted to find fault with their strategy, but there is definitely a need for schools like this that seem committed to taking students from start to finish. The article is a little light on data, but the quotes suggest this school is committed to graduating people, and if they can do and reliably create people ready for the workforce, the only people knocking it probably have a vested interest in the status quo.
posted by lownote at 10:37 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Curiosity bit me, so I looked up the average 6 year graduation rates for the country (scroll down past the 4 and 5 year rates). SNHU seems to lag the average by a significant margin. I'd like to see how it ranks with other small public universities, which I couldn't find.
posted by lownote at 10:44 AM on July 7, 2014

And even with their large team of adjunct faculty, SNHU have consistently been rated one of the best colleges to work for by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

They didn't ask the adjuncts.

SNHU is a nonprofit institution.

Granted that I don't work there, but my impression from the stuff here is that it's a lot closer to being a for-profit school with enough cost sinks to absorb the surplus generated by the online program.

I wanted to find fault with their strategy, but there is definitely a need for schools like this that seem committed to taking students from start to finish.

It all depends on whether they're taking students from start to finish or taking students from start to halfway and then saying "Yay! You're finished!" Figuring out which is which would be Hard, though.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:50 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

SNHU seems to lag the average by a significant margin.

What number are you using for SNHU? Here I found 57%, which seems consistent with the national average....
posted by mr_roboto at 10:56 AM on July 7, 2014

The article says 50%. I wouldn't be shocked if Slate was low balling it for its desired narrative.
posted by lownote at 11:00 AM on July 7, 2014

great, so now I have more options for places to work as a low-wage adjunct...
posted by ennui.bz at 11:00 AM on July 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

...other small public universities...

Also, it's a private university. I think even the 57% rate looks sub-par when compared to other privates.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:02 AM on July 7, 2014

They didn't ask the adjuncts.

Thank you ROU_Xenophobe, that's an important bit that I didn't catch!
posted by Librarypt at 11:39 AM on July 7, 2014

...their focus on innovation...


Is there a business in the US that doesn't claim "innovation" as a focus? "Innovation" is as useless a term as can be anymore, becoming, as it has, a point on the investor checklist. It's almost as bad as "disruptive".
posted by Thorzdad at 11:43 AM on July 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

This is interesting. The "College of America" especially so (and is also, apparently, "revolutionary affordable," which doesn't exactly inspire confidence).

It's not exactly higher education, because the intent is to coordinate their pedagogy between employers and employees.

But it's also not vocational training, per se, since their students are meant to already have jobs, and aren't learning strictly technical skills.

Instead of skills, they teach "competencies". I think human capital development is definitely a good thing, but I feel somewhat wary of this organization -- which teaches "communication, quantitative skills, digital fluency, critical thinking, collaboration, and social responsibility" instead of, I don't know, AUTOCAD or welding or R or STATA -- because those "competencies" seem wildly heterogeneous and awfully broad. And those are things people are supposed to learn before they get to the labor market, really, which probably wouldn't be as much of an issue if our K-12 education system wasn't itself so fucked up.

I'm not sure what to think, to be honest. Lots of adults definitely need better critical thinking, communication, and digital fluency in their lives, but I don't entirely trust that this is being done in a non-exploitative way, especially considering the shitty treatment of instructors and that this is being done in such close coordination with employers, who in America tend to be relentlessly exploitative of their workers and lately very interested in finding novel ways to carry that out.
posted by clockzero at 12:00 PM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

SNHU has an excellent reputation, and I can only say that anyone lumping it in with Kaplan and UPhoenix clearly isn't familiar with the school. No, it's not anybody's first choice school for college; most kids from Nashua or Manchester who end up at SNHU are enrolling because it's cheap and they can live at home. But it's cheap-good, not cheap–Salem State. And the school has made the unusual (around this area) decision to pay serious attention to its distance ed offerings. For a lot of people looking for this stuff—like workers who enroll in online master's programs to boost their salaries—SNHU is a first choice school. Its reputation is at least as good as Northeastern's CPS.

I don't know anything about SNHU, but the idea of a traditional nonprofit university co-opting the customer service and analytics practices of the for-profits while maintaining a focus on quality of education is inherently appealing.

posted by cribcage at 12:46 PM on July 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

*raises hand*

I have some very recent experience with this sort of thing. I didn't attend SNHU, but I did just finish my last semester at Western Governors University (WGU) which shares some similarities with SNHU....I haven't attended SNHU but based on some of their descriptions of how they run I would assume it's very close to WGU's model. Actually, doing a little poking around it looks like SNHU and WGU have very similar models (i.e. "competency-based-education") as described in this PDF from SNHU's website.

[Disclaimer: I'm about to get long-winded and I'm about to sound like a shill for my online school but I promise I'm not, I just have A LOT OF FEELS about this topic]

SNHU vs. The "Phoenixes"
One fairly important distinction between online schools like SNHU and WVU vs. Kaplan, Phoenix, etc...is that of accreditation. Phoenix will go on and on about how they are nationally accredited, hoping you won't notice that they are not regionally accredited. This matters because regional accreditation is more rigorous than national, and happens to be the standard by which your traditional State schools are run.

I just checked the NEASC (regional accreditation board for higher ed in New England area) and SNHU is on their list. WGU is also regionally accredited, and there are a few other online schools --typically with some connection to a state-run institution-- that are also regionally accredited. Again I can't speak for SNHU, but the vast majority of professors I worked with at WGU were Ph.Ds in their field and all had pretty impressive experience/background as well.

My Online Degree Program Experience
I admit I was extremely skeptical of online learning. I had worked in the registrar's office at Utah State years ago and didn't gain a favorable impression of online schools (this was about 10 years ago) at the time.

Fast forward to 2012: for various reasons I ended up with 170 credits and no degree to show for it, well into an IT career and no credentials to speak of. It wasn't a problem at first, but I could see how my lack of education would hinder my progress over time. I also had two young kids at home and a very demanding job with lots of international travel; finishing school seemed like a distant dream.

Enter WGU. I'd heard of it before, but was still pretty skeptical. So I started researching and talking with people about it. Eventually, after about 6 months of reading articles and blogs and forum arguments and even interviewing some folks over the phone my wife finally said "honey just DO IT already!"

I enrolled in their undergrad business cohort in January of 2013, and I just graduated this June with my Bachelors of Science in Marketing Management (yay me!). A couple of notes about my experience:

1. It is decidedly NOT for everyone.
I don't recommend this path for new students, unless going to a physical university just isn't an option for you. Physical, real-time in-class work is valuable for learning all kinds of great skills like: collaborative work, how to take notes, how to discuss complex ideas in a group setting...these are all critical skills and learning them in a university or college environment is invaluable.

2. Online learning can be very tough.
You have to be self-motivated in a very big way. To WGU's credit they are quite strict about this. When you start the enrollment process they spend quite a bit of effort trying to "scare away" any half-hearted hopefuls. There's a lot of pre-testing and phone calls filled with "are you sure you're ready to do this" and "you do realize how much time you need to spend doing this riiiiiight?" sort of thing. It was a little obnoxious but also clear to me that they care a lot about making sure people understand what they are getting into and are prepared to make the best of it.

3. Competency Based Learning (CBE) is different.
CBE doesn't do grades or credit hours, but instead uses Competency Units (CUs) as equivalents. Again, I don't know how SNHU handles this but WGU's stated policy is that in order to earn CUs you have to pass each assessment with an 80% or higher, so your GPA average coming out of it is a B average. This is clearly stated on WGU's website and is also explained in my official transcripts. All grades are listed as Pass/Fail on my transcript with the disclaimer that a Pass at WGU is equivalent to a 3.00 grade at a regualr Uni.

4. CBE consists of comprehensive Final Exams and Big Projects.
For example, the Accounting courses I took as part of my program consisted of one very long (2 hours) comprehensive Corporate Account exam and 4 separate "performance assessments". The exams are proctored just like a normal school, you either have to schedule them at an approved facility (like a public library or testing center) or you have to use a school-supplied webcam and they watch you like a damned hawk and it is a teeny bit creepy (but convenient!).

Performance assessments are basically projects you have to complete which demonstrate your competency in a given domain. For accounting the performance assessments consisted of analyzing financial data for a fictional company, producing a set of error-free accounting instruments (balance sheets, etc) and following all that up with a couple of financial analysis reports written in the style of a memorandum for an executive team.

In another project I ended up producing a 30-page marketing and product development plan with in-depth industry analysis and sales forecasting for a fictional product line of portable bluetooth speakers. My final "capstone" project was a culmination of all these efforts, resulting in a full 3-year business plan.

I also had to do your standard English, History, Science, Math, Statistics, etc...some of this I didn't have to do at WGU because I was able to transfer it from my time at Utah State.

WGU uses an online service called Taskstream, where remote graders take your uploaded work and judge it against a matrix or scoring rubric of various criteria. This part of the grading process can be extremely frustrating to students because the graders are instructed to follow the rubric exactly and you have to pass with a holistic score of 3.00 and no single element of your work can be graded below 3.00. Sometimes the graders' reasons for failing on a given area can read as extremely oblique and mystical...and because they are graders you aren't allowed to talk to them about it. Instead, if your work gets sent back for revision you're going to have to call up one of the professors and work through it with them in a 1-on-1 tutoring session.

Of course this ends up actually being really great, because (in my experience) if you have an area that didn't pass muster it's typically because you just haven't mastered that part of the subject matter and you need to spend more time on it. The course mentors (professors) are excellent at helping you with these moments and guiding the student to the right resources for mastering the subject matter.

Also, even though everything is online WGU provides a TON of group learning opportunities, from active student fora in each degree/course domain as well as live Adobe Classroom sessions and videoconferencing. You have to have weekly call with your academic advisor to make sure you're progressing and have the access and resources you need to work through your courses. Again, in my experience WGU spends a lot of time trying to keep students motivated and get them through the programs with a reasonable and productive timeline.

5. I am so, so happy I did this.
I finally have my degree, and I feel quite confident that the education I received was just as good as a regular non-online school....with some caveats. Having done both, and as mentioned above, the physical school experience is special and important if you can get it. Schools like SNHU should NOT be your first choice, and I don't believe they are intended to be anyone's first choice. They are, however, excellent alternative choices when the time is right. That time, in my opinion, is right when you are a working professional who never finished school. You already have a great deal of the competencies you would have gained in school (you just got it on the job instead), and you already have an improved work ethic and probably some better writing and study habits too. This is who these schools are for. It worked beautifully for me and I can't recommend it enough for people in similar situations to mine.

6. WGU requires APA citation and is rigorous about plagiarism. More so than Utah State was, in my experience.

Final Thoughts
Finishing my degree at WGU gave me three things: deeper and more rigorous knowledge than I had before, better research and writing skills, and a fucking piece of paper to keep the wolves at bay. Like many of you reading this right now (I confidently assume) I am an auto-didact. Not going to WGU wouldn't have resulted in me not learning new things. Finishing my degree doesn't mean that I'll stop learning. That's just not how it works for me. I'm a voracious learner and have no intention of stopping the habit ever.

WGU gave me the opportunity to turn that voraciousness into something that checks a box on a hiring manager's list. In many ways I recognize the diploma as a completely arbitrary thing, an easy rubric by which to separate potential candidates. Is it stupid as hell that my skills and experience could go overlooked because I don't have a B.S. on my resume? Of course it is! You don't have to like the game, but you can't really avoid it either. Playing by the stupid rules of the stupid game is sometimes the only way, as obnoxious as that is*

*Please please don't misunderstand; I'm not denigrating higher learning at all. It just turns out that for a lot of folks traditional education at a brick'n'mortar school is not possible...learning through other means is totally legitimate and should be taken seriously more often. My understanding is that WGU was created with this in mind and I'm a big fan of any non-profit attempting to work in this space
posted by Doleful Creature at 5:50 PM on July 7, 2014 [11 favorites]

The University of Phoenix does have regional accreditation, via the North Central Association. Even so, it has "on notice" status re that accreditation.
posted by raysmj at 7:51 PM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Kaplan University also is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
posted by yellowcandy at 8:17 PM on July 7, 2014

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