From New Hampshire to Nairobi: How SNHU is Scaling Breakthrough Learning for All Students

Insights & Outlooks: Tell us about your own journey to getting involved in education professionally and becoming president of SNHU. What experiences inspire and motivate you to do this work?

Paul LeBlanc, SNHU: My own story is that of an immigrant family and first-generation college student. I grew up in a working-class, melting-pot community in the Boston area where none of the parents in the neighborhood had gone to college, and I was the rare kid in our neighborhood who had the opportunity to earn a degree. I didn’t speak English when we immigrated – I was four. My mom would clean houses in Weston, which is still the wealthiest per capita community of Massachusetts. Then she sometimes would plunk me down in libraries – beautiful, wood-paneled, leather-smelling libraries and give me kids’ books. That’s how I learned to read English before going out to kindergarten. It was a sixth-grade teacher who said to my mother during a parent conference, “Paul could go to college someday.”

This struck her like a thunderbolt. She died a few years ago at the age of 96 and carried that conversation with her verbatim. For me, going to college hadn’t even been an option in my mind, her mind or anyone else’s. I had no choice at that point; somehow, I was going to embrace her dream and go to college.

Insights & Outlooks: SNHU has become particularly well-known for its focus on providing access for students who walk a different path to and through college: working adults, veterans, parents, immigrants and refugees. In your view, should other institutions be competing to serve these students?

Paul LeBlanc, SNHU: The higher ed system that we have today, if you can call it a system, is not built for the challenges we’re facing. The majority of college students we need to serve are non-traditional students, who don’t live on a residential campus with the classic, stereotypical college experience.

We are as an industry, at least in some ways, failing. We have 50 percent of students who start in higher ed and do not finish. We have 37 million Americans with some credits, no degree, and an aggregate $1.3 trillion of student debt—more than all credit card debt combined. We have employers now questioning the quality of what we produce—that’s an industry in trouble. It’s in trouble at the very same time that the country needs us to produce more college graduates, or at least credential-holders who can keep up with a world of work that is changing in dramatic ways and at an ever-increasing pace.

This is happening against a backdrop in which people can no longer afford to dip into higher ed just once and then be set for the rest of their careers. We need to build a higher education ecosystem in which learners enter and come back throughout their entire lives. We need more people serving those underserved populations. We need to serve them differently. We have to be a heck of a lot more effective with serving low-income students. If you look at college completion rates and you look at the bottom quartile in terms of income, in 25 years of college completion work, we’ve barely moved the dial. More wealthy and low-income students are finishing than ever before, but low-income students drop out of the system at the same rate they have for the last 25 years. In my view, that’s unacceptable. It’s a perfect storm. Maybe what’s good about this is that sometimes you have to be in crisis to do the dramatic changes that are necessary.

Insights & Outlooks: SNHU is one of the fastest growing education providers in the United States, serving more than 90,000 online students. Tell us about what most excites you about this growth and your vision for where the university will go in the next five years.

Paul LeBlanc, SNHU: We serve 135,000 learners of college age. Through our recent acquisition of LRNG, we will begin to serve another 50,000 pre-college learners—low-income youth, who are overwhelmingly students of color. But our goal is not just growth for growth’s sake, but to improve outcomes for these communities and to improve lives. Look at our partnership with Duet for example. They are a provider in the Boston area serving some of the poorest students in the city. Students start at Duet using SNHU’s competency-based program with Duet’s wrap-around services. They arrive with incomes of about $14,000 and when they finish, they move in to somewhere around $30,000. That’s a game-changer. That may not be a huge income in America today, but we are moving the dial for them and putting them on a pathway towards work opportunities and lifelong learning.

For us, success is not about numerical growth, but about student success. Our goal is to grow at a pace where despite our scale, every individual student feels like they’re getting a highly personalized, highly supportive experience. For me, it’s about reaching as many learners as we can, without any slippage in quality. We are being very intentional about not thinking of ourselves only as an “institution” with traditional boundaries, but a learning platform that reaches more emphatically upstream to pre-college learners and more emphatically downstream to post-college age learners.

We have to excel equally at meeting the needs of an 11th grader, working on a college degree, and a 65-year old formerly incarcerated adult working on a high school degree. Can we provide that whole breadth and break up the traditional sequencing of when learning happens? It depends, but we want to build a platform that gives learners just the right learning at just the right time, in just the right amount, in just the right way. That will sometimes be a degree, but it will sometimes be a micro credential; it might be a micromasters or it might be a badge; it might carry college credit, it might not; but in every instance, it has to improve their situation. It has to unlock an opportunity. That’s how we think about what we’re trying to build and this is not unique to us. I hear increasingly in the national discourse a conversation about how we need to think about higher ed as an ecosystem or a platform and one that accommodates a greater variety of providers offering a greater range and granularity of credentials.

Insights & Outlooks: You spent time at the Department of Education shaping the federal government’s approach to innovation in postsecondary learning. Now, back in your role at SNHU, how are you hoping to continue those efforts and impact the national discourse around higher education policy?

Paul LeBlanc, SNHU: The federal regulatory system prevents higher ed from being dramatically disrupted. If you take a look at what happened in music or journalism, those industries were disrupted overnight: they went over a cliff. That hasn’t happened in regulated industries like health care or education. So, some people find comfort in that, and that means that our industry is relatively insulated from disruptive change. It also buys us time, which is an advantage. But, of course, that advantage is also a disadvantage, because that “protected” condition can squelch innovation and can fend off much needed change.
The regulatory framework for higher education is mostly driven by federal financial aid policy and rules.

Title I and Title IV of the Higher Education Act have created a system built around the credit hour. The credit hour is good at telling you how long students sit, but it doesn’t truly measure student learning. I have a lot of hope around competency-based learning, but federal financial aid policy isn’t well built to accommodate that model. For example, while the rules allow direct assessment, which we do at SNHU, only a handful of schools have been authorized to use that approach given the complexity of aid administration. All of the related rules— satisfactory academic progress, definitions of the academic year— are tethered to a time-based system ill-suited for a non-time based approach like direct assessment. So, I’m hoping that in the next re-authorization, we will see those tangled rules addressed.

Many regulations are also out of touch with technology and the way education happens. The glaring or startling example of this is the U.S. Department of Education Inspector General’s ruling on Western Governors University. WGU does great work and their teacher education program is one of the most highly ranked in the country. The OIG said that WGU was out of compliance with the regular and substantive interaction rule. That rule assumes a very traditional campus-based model: that students will be on campus, sitting with a faculty member, having an espresso, and talking about the meaning of life. That’s not reality for most of higher ed and in fact, we have powerful tools to support students online and offer more support than that romantic model posits. There’s a lot of energy, and appropriately so, around reinterpreting regular and substantive interaction. My hope is that in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, that we build regulation around transparency and outcomes. If the federal government and accreditors focus on demonstrable outcomes and transparency, institutions will then have to prove that they are providing or delivering on the promise they make to students. In that world, we could be much more agnostic about how students learn and then we open up the door for all kinds of transformational, new instructional models. It also protects against bad actors. Bad actors thrive in darkness, where they can hide from the realities of the outcomes they produce.

We need strong regulatory bodies, but they need to focus on the back end, not trying to anticipate what the future will look like because we can’t know. Title IV still talks about VHS tapes and microfiche, which is crazy! I would hope that at the state level, the federal level and with accreditors, we can get to a place where we create more safe spaces to attempt new approaches. Currently, institutions are heavily penalized when they try and fail. Inevitably, innovation involves making mistakes, but learning from them and improving based on the experience is what matters most. We need to continue to provide protections for students, but also greatly expand the space for experimentation.

Insights & Outlooks: What are the three approaches that SNHU has pioneered through your programs that you think can be brought to scale with the support of federal policy?

Paul LeBlanc, SNHU: Our direct assessment competency-based program is probably the most dramatic approach we’ve employed with implications for federal policy. I sometimes call it the Swiss army knife of curriculum– it’s very flexible and it can serve very different populations in very different ways. We’ve been in some of the hardest places to work in the world: refugee camps and remote regions like Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, and Lebanon. We partner with RISE High in Los Angeles to educate homeless kids and youth who have timed out of the foster care system. We’re using it with DACA students in the Rio Grande Valley.

It’s an incredibly flexible tool and that’s a real breakthrough. I’d love to see the regulatory environment changed so that we can scale and be more robust and deliver in more effective ways. I think that competencies will quickly become the unit of measurement for all of education.

What are the claims you make to prove student learning? This natural bridge or evolution from input to outcomes is through competencies. At a fundamental level, we need to spotlight not just what students learn, but what they can do with that learning. That’s profound because employers care about what our graduates can do. A transcript that includes a managerial accounting course enables employers to infer what a student knows, but they don’t quite know what students can do with that knowledge. When you talk about competencies and what students can do, that’s the language of the workforce. Right now, higher ed has a problem with workforce alignment. Competencies are a real breakthrough.

Data is another breakthrough. In every industry in the world, it seems data is transforming how we do work. I look at our data analytics team: we have 75 people on it, we measure everything. We learn a lot. It allows us to improve quality and it allows us to support students much more robustly. Think of the work that Mark Becker’s doing at Georgia State University, for example, using data around persistence and the way they’ve been able to move the dial on that. Look at the work of a company like Civitas Learning, which is using data to help institutions measure the efficacy of all of their student success initiatives and to optimize student success. Simply put, data is a game changer.

Insights & Outlooks: Final question: is there a favorite podcast, show or a book that you’re enjoying now or recently and could you share with us why?

Paul LeBlanc, SNHU: I’ve been listening to the Masters of Scale podcast. In our strategic plan, we call for serving 300,000 learners or more. I’m fascinated by how to scale while also maintaining quality. At SNHU, we think about this all the time. When people want to throw a rock in our direction, they’ll often say, “Well, you can’t be growing this fast and not compromising quality.” I always challenge people to come take a look at what we’re doing to reassure them that we know how to deliver on a mission to serve as many students as possible – while at the same time, not just maintaining quality, but improving it. It’s really hard. We often learn more from other industries than we do from our own and this podcast has been informative.

Every industry is an echo chamber. We’re all reading the Chronicle, we’re all reading Inside Higher Ed, we’re all at the same conferences. We kind of know what’s going on by and large, but it’s fascinating to look at and learn from industries like healthcare. I just listened to the podcast with Danny Meyer, one of the great restauranteurs in America. I love, for example, the way he talks about the difference between service and hospitality. Service is what people pay for and expect. Hospitality is the unexpected “wow” moments– that you remembered my favorite cocktail before I even ordered, or that you went out of the ordinary to do something for me. That’s memorable.

I sometimes ask my team: “Can we get to a place where every single semester, a student has a ‘take your breath away’ moment of learning?” That can be a student who gets to go study abroad from a small town in Maine or New Hampshire who had no idea the world was this big and different, or complicated – it changes everything for them. It can also be an amazing instructor who helps a student find their calling the way a faculty member did for me. It can be a hands-on learning experience. It can be an internship. It can create those moments that are life changing, that are so much more than the systems or the curriculum we create, and build transformative experiences of education. How do we do that? How do we do it online? How do we do it for busy adults? How do we do it for 18-year- olds living on campus? That’s a great challenge.