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The Amazon of Higher Education


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How tiny, struggling Southern New Hampshire University has become a behemoth.

Gabriel Kahn


Five years ago, Southern New Hampshire University was a 2,000-student private school struggling against declining enrollment, poor name recognition, and teetering finances.


Today, its the Amazon.com of higher education. The schools burgeoning online division has 180 different programs with an enrollment of 34,000. Students are referred to as customers. It undercuts competitors on tuition. And it deploys data analytics for everything from anticipating future demand to figuring out which students are most likely to stumble.


We are super-focused on customer service, which is a phrase that most universities cant even use, says Paul LeBlanc, SNHUs president.



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Is the College of the Future in New Hampshire?





For years, SNHU was a traditional, small, residential school in Manchester, NH. But after nearly a decade of declining enrollment and tuition revenue, President Paul LeBlanc decided to take the school in a very different direction, pumping tons of resources into the schools nascent online education department, which now boasts enrollment 11 times higher than the residential college. Slate explains the strategy:




The result is a system which strives for efficiency and cost-effectiveness above all else. Classes are highly standardized, generally taught by low-paid adjunct professors who serve more as guides than teachers, and students activities are closely monitored by programs that analyze data to determine where professors should spend most of their time. It may not sound inspiring, but its cheap: a four-year degree costs only $35,000, and the school is already experimenting with new ways to lower the price still further.


In some ways, this looks like a good way to educate the millions of people who are shut out from, or poorly served by, the current higher-ed system. On the other hand, it moves dangerously close to the education-as-training model weve expressed concerns about in the past. Some say the school could devolve into a diploma mill. But as cost pressures make life difficult for small, lower-tier schools like SNHU, were likely to see more experiments like this amid mounting pressure to stay afloat. The future of higher ed could look more like this than many expect.

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