Meet the English Professor Creating The Billion-Dollar College Of The Future

Mar 31, 2019 by

Related imageThe tall, silver-bearded president of Southern New Hampshire University is beaming as he takes a brisk walk through the halls of the Mill, the private not-for-profit school’s vast nerve center. There are no students here. Instead, the converted textile factory on the banks of the Merrimack River in Manchester, New Hampshire, is packed with row after row of gray cubicles staffed by 1,700 employees servicing the exploding online enrollment—some 135,000 and counting—at SNHU, as the school is known. “We have set out to be the Nordstrom’s of higher education,” says Paul LeBlanc, 61. “We want to have the best-in-class customer support.”

A former English professor from a working-class immigrant family, LeBlanc has taken his passion for technology and, cherry-picking what many of the much-maligned for-profit colleges did right, revitalized a dying institution. Like the for-profit schools, SNHU attracts students with a nationwide advertising campaign that eats up as much as 20% of its operating budget. And as the for-profits have done, SNHU targets a nontraditional demographic, the 37% of American college students over age 24, many of whom have jobs and families. They can’t afford and don’t want a residential campus experience. His teaching staff: an army of 6,000 adjuncts who earn as little as $2,200 per course.

With an open enrollment policy whose only requirement is a high school degree or a GED, SNHU’s priority is supporting its growing student body. “It’s a word we can’t use in nonprofit higher ed—that students can be students but they can also be customers,” says LeBlanc. When prospective applicants place a call or send an email inquiry through SNHU’s site, one of its 300 admissions counselors responds in less than five minutes. At traditional schools it’s standard practice to require applicants to track down their own transcripts. SNHU takes care of that chore within two days, at no charge.

By the numbers, the strategy is an overwhelming success. Though the sticker price for an online student to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree with no transfer credits is just $40,000 and SNHU hasn’t raised tuition since 2011, margins in the online division are a fat 24%. Since LeBlanc took over in 2003, SNHU has gone from a little-known third-rate undergraduate business school with 2,800 students, no endowment and a budget that was barely in the black, to America’s biggest university by enrollment with 97% of its students online. (SNHU still has a 300-acres campus, dotted with slick new buildings paid for with online revenue.) He is projecting a 2020 budget of nearly $1 billion, a surplus of at least $60 million and more than 300,000 students by 2025.

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