Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is one of the one of most important innovators in HigherEd (up there with Minerva, ASU and a few more). Paul LeBlanc took on the leadership of SNHU in 2003. Since then the school has grown from 2500 students to over 80,000, and is the second largest nonprofit provider of online HigherEd.

As important as the scale achieved by SNHU, it’s innovations like College for America that are putting the Manchester, New Hampshire school on the map. The online school, typically sponsored by an employer, allows working adults to conduct a series of projects to develop and demonstrate 120 competencies to earn a business degree. Most recently, SNHU has partnered with K12 Inc. to advance excellence in K-12 online teaching.

Listen to this fascinating conversation with Paul LeBlanc.

Podcast Highlights

How did a sleepy New Hampshire college become a leading online university?

LeBlanc teaches a program for first time college presidents where he urges them to be hard nosed analysts internally and to play your best cards. For LeBlanc that was a great online program. Fifteen years ago nonprofits were looked down on, it was University of Phoenix, Kaplan, and DeVry that owned the space in part because they were more thoughtful about what adult learners needed.

Inspired by Clayton Christensen, LeBlanc studied adult learners and the “jobs to be done.” They identified four critical factors:

  • Convenience: adults need to squeeze learning into busy lives, study when where possible;
  • Cost: programs should affordable requiring limited debt;
  • Credential: earning a degree or credential that will advance a career
  • Completion: getting to a degree as fast as possible.

After five years of hard work–hiring the right people and building systems–people started taking notice. By 2010, SNHU test marketed their brand in Milwaukee and Oklahoma City and determined they could compete with the big for-profits. The Great Recession hit employment hard but based on early success LeBlanc’s board gave him the green light to market heavily.

While some universities tested one or two degree programs, SNHU went out with 24 programs to, as LeBlanc explained, spread the high cost of acquisition across a number of programs. With the benefit of counter cycle enrollments and congressional attacks on for-profit operators, SNHU went from 50th in online enrollment among nonprofits to #4 three years later.

What are the keys to doing online learning well?

Ten years ago online learning was not as good as traditional HigherEd said LeBlanc. But as Clayton Christensen (a former board member) said, disruptive innovations get better and today the best online programs are better than most face to face courses.

LeBlanc credits high quality course development, platforms that provide better analytics and wrap around services for at risk students as key to SNHU success.

A powerful customer relationship management system (built on Salesforce) lets advisors sees students that are off track and take action. Being proactive is important because it’s typically not a lack of academic ability that is the real impediment, said LeBlanc,”it’s life that gets in the way; it’s a lack of confidence, or circumstances that reduce persistence “

SNHU delivers courses asynchronously because convenience is important to working adults. There are typically not cohorts but some courses require teams to build employment skills.

What’s the backstory to College for America, the most important Innovation in HigherEd?

The unbundling of HigherEd and LeBlanc’s commitment to relentlessly challenge status quo led to a white paper that described new pathways that leverage social capital of the workplace and community. In 2014, College for America (CfA) was launched with the goal of serving low paid working adults such as factory workers and hospital orderlies.

A clause in federal Title 4 that allows dispersal of financial aid based on direct assessment of student learning helped kick start the program. For $1500 every six months, student progress through projects and demonstrations of mastery. Employers love the clarity of competencies. LeBlanc notes that no one slides by with a C grade.

Initially funded with an Gates Foundation NGLC grant, CfA received strong marks on an early ETS evaluation.

High school partners in LA (DaVinci Rise), Providence (Big Picture) and Boston (Match Beyond) are using CfA as their primary dual enrollment partner in an early college strategy that enables high school students to earn an AA degree.

CfA has also received a $10 million grant to serve refugee camps in Rwanda. Students are outperforming their counterparts in traditional HigherEd.

Why build your own platform?

Brian Peddle and the CfA team explored a variety of learning management systems before deciding to build their own platform on Salesforce to support the innovative competency-based CfA program. The platform they built, Motivis, was spun out as an independent company in 2014 with the benefit of a $7 million investment from SNHU. With more than 30 employees, Motivis recently secured a second round of funding to support growing demand.

How do you build a culture of innovation in the nonprofit sector?

“The discipline to innovate is not widely understood” said LeBlanc. In most places it is “throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.”

Innovation starts with keeping outside of the mainstream said LeBlanc, “EdX couldn’t innovate inside Harvard and MIT.” Successful online programs are usually standalone and outside the traditional institution. LeBlanc noted an online program started by a land grant university that failed in a year. “If you build rigid organization in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, you are more vulnerable.”

What personal practices that keep your feed your innovation mindset?

LeBlanc reads extensively outside HigherEd. He learns from health care and other complex, regulated industries. Like the Institute for the Future, he looks for artifacts from the future that foretell future state.

Why the new seed fund with Rethink?

Launched with NYC EdTech venture fund Rethink Education, SNHU created a $15 million seed fund to support about two dozen startups over the next five years. Most will receive an initial $250,000, with an additional $500,000 available through follow-on funding. Both SNHU and Rethink will take equity in the companies.The fund addresses a gap in the market and “It makes us smarter,” said LeBlanc.

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