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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Degrees of debt: SNHU on leading edge of online education

Plenty of industries have used the online world to cut costs and make their product a lot less expensive. Can colleges do the same?

That’s one of the most pressing questions in higher education, and around the country, many people are looking at Southern New Hampshire University, a small private school in Manchester that is on the leading edge of the movement. In fact, its work has gotten an enthusiastic thumbs-up from a surprising location: tech publication Fast Company.

Earlier this year the magazine labeled SNHU as one of the 50 most innovative companies in the world, not just the U.S. It was the only educational facility on the list, alongside names like Apple, Starbucks and HBO.

The magazine gushed that SNHU was “relentlessly reinventing higher ed, online and off,” but it’s the online part that really matters.

The school’s Center for Online and Continuing Education, operating out of the Manchester millyard, provides online college degrees to students, most of them adults returning to school.

Steve Hodownes, CEO of the center, says it will probably have $120 million in revenue this year, 10 times the level of five years ago, with some 18,000 students by the end of the upcoming academic year.

That’s only a fraction of for-profit online schools like University of Phoenix, but it dwarfs the 2,300 students who attend the school’s leafy campus on Manchester’s northern border.

The more important number for many people, however, is $38,000, roughly the cost of getting a 120-credit bachelor’s degree at the campus. That comes out to about $320 per credit hour.

By contrast, tuition at SNHU’s on-campus program is $27,000 per year, which means a four-year degree would cost about three times as much on campus than online. That doesn’t include housing, food and other costs related to living on campus; neither figure includes books or fees.

For the time being, the two sides of Southern New Hampshire University mostly serve different student bodies.

SNHU draws mostly traditional students, people straight out of high school, for its bachelor’s programs, while COCE’s students are “predominantly 21 and older,” said Hodownes. But that’s slowly changing as the concept of online schooling edges into the mainstream.

Like many advocates of online education, Hodownes argues that COCE is cutting costs partly by changing the way courses are approached. Rather than having each professor make up his or her approach within loose guidelines, many courses are “built,” as he put it, so that all teachers work in the same framework. Aside from more uniformity, this can raise quality, he argued.

“We have a staff of 30 instructional designers. We use subject-matter experts – faculty, adjunct (faculty), industry experts,” he said.

Quality is a big issue in online education, because of the system’s novelty. Some for-profit online schools have been accused of cutting corners to increase their revenue from federal aid.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges accredits online courses, just as it does classroom courses.

“The commission looks at: do they have the capacity, are they hiring faculty who have experience teaching online, or if using their own faculty, are they preparing them, providing them professional development for the skills of teaching online,” said Barbara Brittingham, president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, part of the association. “It looks at how the institution is going to ensure that the students are enrolled, actually doing the work, getting the grade; how the institution is going to assure that the achievement of students in online courses is equivalent to achievement in other courses.”

Most standards are general, such as requiring professors to be available to students, and depend on peer review to see if the methods that are used accomplish the goal.

“It doesn’t serve to be too specific when situations are so different among institutions, and when the technology is changing,” Brittingham said.

COCE points to other aspects of technology that make a difference: Not just automated grading of quizzes and instant-message or message-board connections with professors and aides, but software that analyzes student performance and helps flag those having trouble. Keeping non-traditional students in school is always hard, and Hodownes believes that it’s at least as feasible, if not more so, to do this with online education.

He pointed to his own children’s experience in traditional colleges.

“If they had five or six interactions with their advisers, it was a lot,” he said. “Here, they can call for help at 10 in the morning, 11 in evening, as opposed to a two-hour time band when there are office hours.”

Another intriguing aspect of COCE arises from a $1 million grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges. The school is looking at whether it can improve college completion for groups, such as minorities and older students who have trouble completing full courses, by creating what are currently called “badges,” or self-paced portions of a traditional course. The idea is that students compile these badges at their own pace, eventually, adding up to a traditional semester class.

“The idea is taking courses down to a rudimentary level, not three credit-hours but subject based. We would have a learning model on, say, solving a quadratic equation, or constructing a paragraph – as you build competency in them, they accumulate, become a credit hour,” Hodownes said.

If this works, which is far from clear, it would create an entirely new model of getting a degree. Which is exactly the sort of experimentation that has some people excited about online education, and SNHU.

“They have a degree program, experience with students, experience with online – they are well-positioned to take on this work,” Brittingham said. “It’s very intriguing.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or Follow him on Twitter at @GraniteGeek.