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Thursday, April 25, 2013

SNHU’s College for America program provides low-cost, accessible higher education

Danielle Curtis

Kim Wright took a few college courses after graduating high school but never earned a degree.

Though she thought about going back to school for years, financial constraints always held her back. ...

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Kim Wright took a few college courses after graduating high school but never earned a degree.

Though she thought about going back to school for years, financial constraints always held her back.

So when her employer told her about a self-paced online program that would help her earn her associate degree in less than two years, she jumped at the chance.

“I always want to challenge myself, to get more knowledge and prove that I can do it,” Wright said Wednesday. “I’m just excited to see how far I can go.”

Wright, facilities manager at The Moore Center in Manchester, which provides care to individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities and brain injuries, is one of about 500 employees from companies and organizations around the country participating in an eight-month pilot program of Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America online, competency-based degree program.

The pilot launched in January, and the program will officially launch in September.

Last week, the degree program became the first of its kind in the nation to receive approval from the federal Department of Education to be eligible for Higher Education Act funding, allowing its students to qualify for federal financial aid.

Financial aid has traditionally been awarded based on a student’s “seat time,” measured by the credit hour. College for America’s competency-based model, however, measures students by what they’ve learned, not on how much time spent on a course.

“It’s very cool, and it will open up a lot of opportunities for us to serve more students that couldn’t have been involved before,” College for America Executive Director Kristine Clerkin said of the federal approval.

College for America was conceived in 2011, when SNHU President Paul Leblanc created the university’s Innovation Lab to find ways to combat the most common obstacles keeping students from earning a degree: cost and convenience.

“There’s a whole bunch of people who really don’t feel that they have real access to higher education,” Clerkin said. “It’s not approachable for them.”

In June 2012, the Innovation Lab was awarded a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help start the College for America program.

Since then, development has continued, and in January, a pilot version of College for America opened to 500 employees from local companies and others around the country, including Panera Bread, the city of Memphis and FedEx Express.

The online program allows students to earn an associate degree. When it officially launches this fall, it will cost $2,500 a year.

The program partners with companies and organizations, accepting students only from such groups, Clerkin said. The partnerships provide support for students and ensures that they are able to complete the program, she said.

Students earn credits through College for America by mastering 120 competencies – skills and knowledge they should understand and utilize by the end of their time in the program – at their own pace.

Mastery is demonstrated through a series of 75 tasks and projects, from writing a business memo and preparing a presentation to analyzing spreadsheets of data.

Students also are assigned an online coach, who they can turn to for advice and help during the process.

SNHU already has about 23,000 students enrolled in its traditional online degree programs each year. But Clerkin said College for America goes even further toward making higher education accessible for working adults.

“With this program, we have a handful of students who will probably complete their degree by the end of the year,” she said. “Students who have developed some of the skills already can move very quickly.”

Wright said she already has seen the benefits of self-paced learning.

She set a goal to earn her associate degree before the eight-month pilot ended and said she’s confident she’ll be able to do just that. And Wright said she has already seen how the skills she is gaining are having a positive impact on her job performance.

For The Moore Center President and CEO Paul Boynton and Human Resources Director Bethany Earls, it was the flexibility of the program that caught their eye.

“This sounded exactly like what I had been looking for for our employees,” Boynton said. “It took all of the excuses people use not to go back to school, and it found a way around them.”

Boynton said he introduced the program to The Moore Center managers soon after hearing about it and that the organization’s employees jumped on board. About 15 employees are taking part in the pilot program.

Because students are learning skills that can help them in their current jobs, Earls said, the company is benefiting and is able to provide a better workplace for employees and better care for clients.

Clerkin said SNHU has big plans to bring these benefits to students around the country. By 2018, the university hopes to see 350,000 students enrolled in College for America degree programs.

Boynton and Earls said they expect The Moore Center’s partnership with the program to continue and hope to be able to offer their employees even more education opportunities through College for America.

“This is creating an education that is accessible to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend,” Earls said. “It’s life-
changing.”

Danielle Curtis can be reached
at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Curtis on Twitter (@Telegraph_DC).