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SNHU's revolution: A bold experiment

April 28. 2013 12:10AM

Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester has the insular world of higher education buzzing. On April 16, SNHU was notified by the U.S. Department of Education that the university's experimental competency-based education program had the federal government's official approval. The way Americans experience college might change forever.

A traditional college degree is based on spending two or four years in classes, then passing exams that produce transcripts full of letter grades. The costs at SNHU are around $50,000 for a two-year degree, $110,000 for a four-year degree. With the approval of the university's new competency-based model, students will have the opportunity to earn a two-year degree for about $5,000. Instead of tallying their classroom instruction time, the university will assess the students' knowledge and skills.

"For the first time in the history of American higher education, federal dollars will support a degree path based on what you have learned, not how long you have sat in a chair," SNHU President Paul Leblanc told this newspaper.

The university is calling this initiative the College for America. Available only through participating employers, eventually it will be opened to the public.

This is not New Hampshire's first foray into competency-based education. During Gov. Craig Benson's term, state Board of Education Chairman Fred Bramante pushed hard to have competency-based education and real-world learning introduced into the public school system. He succeeded, which allowed some very innovative experiments. But the public K-12 education system being what it is, these changes have been slow to spread.

Higher education is a different beast. It is highly competitive. Good (and bad) ideas can spread quickly. Already administrators at other colleges and universities are considering following SNHU's lead. It is too early to call this a revolution, but Leblanc's experiment definitely is noteworthy.

"What higher education has historically been able to do with great precision is tell the world how long a student spent on a topic, not what they have actually learned," Leblanc said earlier this month. "So when an employer gets a transcript in front of them, and sees the student got a 'B,' all that tells them is that the student did better than a student who got a 'C,' but they don't know what the student actually learned. When they get a transcript from CFA, they will see 120 competencies that define very precisely what a student knows."

The appeal for employers is obvious. Students should be attracted by the dramatically lower prices and the opportunity to go at their own pace. Is this the long-sought answer to the ever-rising price of higher education? It is far too early to know. But it is an experiment with promise, and Leblanc deserves credit for conducting it.

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