How SNHU Succeeded by Understanding What Students Really Want—and Changing Everything

By: Michael B. Horn and Paul LeBlanc

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is known worldwide for using disruptive innovation theory as a central insight in its decision to separate its online programs from the rest of the school to help create the largest university in the United States.

Although the theory of disruptive innovation was significant for SNHU, it was another theory of Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen’s—the “Jobs to Be Done” (Jobs) theory, which receives far less attention in higher education circles—that was arguably far more consequential in the university’s success.

A common misunderstanding around the theory of disruptive innovation is that pioneering something “disruptive” will translate to success. In reality, disruptive innovation is a theory of competitive response. It allows you to predict how existing organizations will respond to novel, initially less attractive offerings powered by technology. By focusing on how organizations will react, the theory is focused fundamentally on a sector’s supply side.

The Jobs theory, on the other hand, is focused on the demand side. A “Job” represents the progress that an individual is trying to make in a particular circumstance. Understanding individuals’ Jobs allows an organization to not only build a successful offering that incorporates the experiences a user needs to make progress in their life but also put in place the proper organizational structure to deliver on that Job with predictable, repeatable processes.

Put differently, as disruptive innovation carries a doomsday connotation, Jobs has a sunnier disposition focused on success.

As recounted in the new book on students’ Jobs to Be Done in higher education, called Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life (Jossey Bass, September 2019) coauthored by Bob Moesta, Christensen’s collaborator in developing the Jobs theory, SNHU’s use of the theory was a crucial component in redesigning its school so it could be successful.

Several years back, SNHU realized the university was serving students with at least two different Jobs. Using the language of the research in “Choosing College,” one was the student who was “hiring” college to help them get into their best school. Certainly they wanted to have college lead to a good career, but they were far more focused on having the classic college experience and transitioning into full adulthood. These students were focused on things like sports teams, studying abroad, leading clubs and organizations, climbing walls and interacting with faculty around the meaning of life—what SNHU came to call “the coming of age” Job.

The second Job, which SNHU’s adult students primarily sought, was to help them “step it up” in their lives. Most were working parents and were stuck professionally and economically. They had as much “coming of age” as they could handle. They now needed a program designed to help them grow professionally while fitting into their incredibly busy lives. Students in this Job cared about things like convenience, customer service, speedy completion times and credentials. They were “hiring” SNHU’s online program, which the university had historically treated as a side project.

As the SNHU team dug into the Jobs theory, it realized it was failing to distinguish between these students with very different Jobs. Take discussions of financial aid, for example. For those typically traditional students seeking to “get into their best school,” SNHU began talking to them about basic financial aid information during their junior year of high school. Not having specifics for at least a year worked fine for both the student and the university. Any student inquiry would take weeks to resolve because there was no urgency on either side.

But for students who needed to step it up, they needed answers on financial aid right away. Their time to act was now or never. Waiting hours, let alone weeks, to respond was too late. They also needed to know whether previous college courses would count as credit toward an SNHU degree within days.

What had to change at SNHU? Nearly everything.

SNHU redid its advertisements for its online programs to focus on the training students needed to advance in their career, but also the emotional and social dimensions around the pride one feels in realizing a goal. When asked in an advertisement why they earned their degree from SNHU Online, one father said, “I did it for you, bud,” and held back tears as his young son said, “Congratulations, Daddy!” These students enrolled because their families were counting on them.

SNHU realized it was not enough just to enroll students, but it also had to support them to and through graduation. SNHU Online assigns students a personal adviser, for example, who stays in constant contact with students and picks up on red flags such as missed assignments even before students do in many cases.

This undertaking also changed how the university measured success. For example, SNHU would have formerly measured how it responded to student inquiries in terms of how many packages were mailed out. It would then wait for the interested students to call. But now SNHU Online measures response time in minutes. The goal is to call back in under 10 minutes.

Restructuring SNHU Online’s organization around the step it up Job has helped it soar to where it now serves more than 135,000 students, with graduates earning an average of $51,000 within 12 months of graduation.

Importantly, as colleges and universities use an understanding of their students’ Jobs to enhance the design of their institutions, that doesn’t mean schools should sacrifice standards or rigor under the notion that the “student customer is always right.” Quite the contrary.

Higher education doesn’t just serve students. It has other important Jobs that society hires it to do, which it cannot sacrifice. For example, society expects colleges to create a workforce well prepared for a fast-changing global economy and to help graduates develop enduring skills that allow them to better participate as citizens and professionals without debilitating debt.

Far from dumbing down standards, as schools reorient around students’ Jobs, it is more important to raise standards for students. Set clear criteria for graduating in everything from academics to students’ social and emotional needs and hold to it while simultaneously designing student support in ways that are tuned to students’ specific Jobs.

As colleges and universities suffer public criticism around the perception of their high prices and low value, Jobs thinking presents an opportunity to flip the script and allow the higher education community to design better sets of experiences to help students make progress and be successful in their lives.

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Michael B. Horn is the co-author of the forthcoming book, “Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life” (September 2019) and co-founder and a distinguished fellow of the Clayton Christensen Institute. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelBHorn.

Paul LeBlanc has served as president of Southern New Hampshire University since 2003. Prior to that, he was the president of Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont. Follow Paul on Twitter at @snhuprez.

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