EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 19, 2014

SNHU emerging as online education leader

President expects to top 35,000 students this year

By John Toole

---- — Lindsey Rice comes home from work, makes sure the kids are fed and put to bed, then it’s off to college — in her living room.

The 26-year-old mother of three, ages 8 months to 8 years, powers up a laptop to check her assignments, interact with classmates through discussion boards and see what her instructors have to say.

Her college, Southern New Hampshire University, is about 20 minutes up the highway, but Rice doesn’t have to go there.

She is part of the university’s worldwide, online enrollment that SNHU president Paul LeBlanc says is expected to top 35,000 this year. That compares to an on-campus enrollment of 2,900 for the university that straddles the Manchester-Hooksett town line.

LeBlanc said SNHU’s online enrollment is the fastest growing in the nation the past two years.

Rice is glad to be part of it.

“SNHU has been amazing for me,” Rice said. “I can have more time with my family. I can work at my own pace.”

She enrolled at SNHU to complete prerequisite courses for nursing school.

“My ultimate goal is being an R.N.,” said Rice, a medical assistant.

Many students share Rice’s opinion about SNHU and online learning. A survey of students showed 95 percent would recommend online learning to others.

Enrollment online has soared from 2,000 five years ago.

SNHU started building the enrollment eight to 10 years ago, after watching adult learners moving to online platforms.

Developing the online program, for a school that always reached out to adult learners, made sense.

“It works so much better for adults,” LeBlanc said.

Innovation is key

The university isn’t afraid of innovation; it has operated satellite campuses for years, including one in Salem.

“It’s part of our DNA,” LeBlanc said.

Victoria Czaia, 49, of Atkinson graduated from SNHU with an online degree in public administration.

“I did mine completely online,” Czaia said.

Now, Czaia is enrolled full time at Massachusetts School of Law in Andover.

Admission with an online degree was not an issue.

“Absolutely not. They were very surprised with my grade point average, 3.8,” Czaia said.

An SNHU professor wrote her a letter of recommendation after she aced three classes.

Czaia, a Democratic nominee for state Senate two years ago, completed her degree while working part time.

“I was able to take my time,” she said.

She took a couple of courses each semester, studying at various times of the day when it was convenient.

Kristen Gray is a New Englander now living in Germany where her husband, Philip, is stationed with the Army. She is taking a break from studies, but has completed a semester toward a master’s degree through SNHU in Internet marketing.

“Not only are the programs affordable, but the school itself is also very military-friendly, which was very appreciated,” said Gray, a 24-year-old mother.

The time difference didn’t affect her studies.

“There were no classes where everyone had to be logged on at once, so I was not sitting on my computer at 10 o’clock at night or three o’clock in the morning,” Gray said.

Her professors were always helpful.

“If I needed anything or had any questions, they were excellent responding to me via email, which was something I didn’t always get with my undergraduate professors,” Gray said.

Czaia found professors in online classes to be responsive.

“When I had a question, they replied in a 24-hour period,” Czaia said. “Many professors will give you a cell phone and say, ‘If you’d rather talk, we can talk.’”

Students also get advisers.

Rice is pleased with hers.

“I do have the option of going in to see her,” Rice said. “Anytime I have a good grade, she shoots me an email and tells me I’m doing great.”

Savings are great, some say

Affordability is something the students value.

Sean Ball, 35, of Hooksett estimates he’s saved as much as $15,000 through online studies.

Ball, who works for a bank, describes himself as a “hybrid student,” one taking some courses online, some on campus.

He is completing an accounting degree with an emphasis in forensic accounting.

His classmates are from throughout the country. One works for the Internal Revenue Service, another is a Navy investigator.

“If I went to a regular classroom, I wouldn’t have that diversity,” Ball said. “You connect with other people who have vastly different experience.”

The students don’t see an online degree as a disadvantage in the work world.

“I currently work with nurses, doctors, physician assistants,” Rice said. “They all say this is just a route people are taking.”

The age of the hiring employer may affect how an online degree is perceived, Ball said.

“For somebody a little younger in years, this is not as much of a big deal to them,” he said.

His experience in the financial sector is that people doing the hiring have sometimes completed online programs themselves.

Michael McCutcheon, a Londonderry police sergeant, teaches justice studies online for SNHU.

McCutcheon sees employers as more accepting of an online degree.

“I think it has definitely changed,” McCutcheon said.

He compares it to online dating. Twenty years ago, people wouldn’t admit to online dating.

“Now, it’s normal,” McCutcheon said.

Everyone is just more comfortable with technology and more people are studying online, he said.

He said he has four police colleagues in Londonderry pursuing degrees in their spare time.

Online degrees well respected

Seldom do students tell SNHU that employers are skeptical about their degree.

“We rarely hear feedback from students that their degree is being looked at askance,” LeBlanc said.

He notes Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are now offering some courses online.

“That is really validating,” he said.

Babson Survey Research Group at Babson College last week issued a study, saying more than 7 million students are taking courses online with 6 percent growth year over year.

But the number of academic leaders rating the outcomes of online learning the same or better than the classroom declined, from 77 to 74 percent, showing some in higher education still have their doubts.

Carmen Federico of Salem, a controller who is an accounting instructor for SNHU, has taught both online and in the classroom.

“I find students have to work a little harder online,” Federico said.

With participation required in discussion boards, students can’t hide out as they can in some classrooms.

“It absolutely changes that dynamic,” Federico said. “Everyone has to participate.”

McCutcheon said instructors benefit from flexible scheduling, too, and he also enjoys the diversity of the online classroom.

He has had courses with students from Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, even Saudi Arabia.

The sets up a different kind of learning discussion than might happen if the students all were from Derry or Londonderry, he said.

“You get a wider variety of students,” McCutcheon said. “It makes for a better class.”

Federico and McCutcheon aren’t surprised students praise their instructors.

“I would say adjuncts provide a lot of value to students,” Federico said. “They are bringing real life experience.”

McCutcheon can tell his students enjoy hearing stories from him about his police work.

“I will tell them that yesterday I had a guy I arrested for such and such,” McCutcheon said. “That is much more interesting to them.”

SNHU provides training and mentoring for instructors.

“Adjuncts who have taught elsewhere remark on the difference at SNHU,” LeBlanc said.

SNHU’s chief academic officer, Gregory Fowler, said the university has a pool of 2,400 adjuncts.

“This is not your typical adjunct faculty member role,” he said. “We expect our faculty to go above and beyond to support our students, without sacrificing academic quality.”

Faculty are expected to identify struggling students and be aggressive in helping them succeed, he said.

Adjuncts are subjected to pre-hire screenings, three weeks of extensive training, formal evaluations, then receive additional training and support once they start, Fowler said.

They are experienced, have advanced degrees and some have previously worked at top universities or in positions such as U.S. attorney, he said.

“We expect them to be mentors as much as they are teachers,” he said.

McCutcheon and Federico both brought teaching experience when they signed on at SNHU.

The university continues to expand full-time faculty. LeBlanc said 25 were added last year, with the university adding another 25 this year.

The quality of students is the same, whether online or in the classroom, McCutcheon said.

“You have some who are brilliant, witty, smart,” he said. “There are others you need to give more help.”

Federico agrees.

“There are many students who excel,” he said. “Some you have to help around a bit.”

SNHU points to graduation rate

Graduation rate for SNHU’s online programs is about 50 percent. LeBlanc said that’s among the best for online programs.

“At many community colleges, the graduation rate is in the single digits,” he said. “Twenty percent would be high.”

There’s a reason.

“Life gets in the way,” he said.

Students are dealing with family, illness, job changes. A student gets a promotion at work and decides he doesn’t need to continue studies, LeBlanc said.

Gray is one example.

“I realized I may have jumped the gun a little on starting school so soon after moving to Germany,” Gray said. “I was a little uncertain about what I would really want to do with my degree, so I decided to put it on hold for a while so I could figure out what I wanted before facing more student loans.”

SNHU is now developing the College for America.

The program is letting employees of companies like ConAgra Foods earn degrees. Instead of traditional credit hours, students must demonstrate they are competent in areas such as communication.

“You have to show mastery,” LeBlanc said.

SNHU also continues to grow its traditional campus for the 18-year-olds graduating high school.

The university has invested $71 million in facilities over 15 years, including a new academic center, dining hall and student center.

LeBlanc sizes up the future for online education at SNHU this way: “Continuing to grow and getting better and better.”