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April 18. 2013 1:40AM

Feds approve pioneering SNHU degree

MANCHESTER - Years from now, when historians look back on how higher education in the United States was transformed to allow for lower cost, greater access and better outcomes, they'll say it all started in Manchester, at Southern New Hampshire University. At least that's the way SNHU President Paul Leblanc sees it.

Leblanc received a letter Tuesday from the U.S. Department of Education informing him that SNHU's pioneering competency-based associate's degree program has been approved by federal authorities. The SNHU College for America is now the first degree program in the nation eligible for federal financial aid that does not rely on the traditional credit hour to measure student learning.

"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," Leblanc said.

The $153 billion a year pumped into student grants, work-study programs and government-backed loans has enormous power to drive the direction of innovation in education.

"It's the engine of the higher-education economy in many ways," Leblanc said, "and for the first time, we are saying the calculus on which financial aid will be granted is fundamentally different."



Employers lined up



The Education Department approval is the second of two major milestones for the program, which already has employers lined up to enroll their workers.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the regional accrediting agency for all levels (pre-K to doctoral) approved the program in September. That set the stage for the application to the Education Department in October.

"This is an innovation story that New Hampshire has to tell," he said. "There are any number of other institutions in the country now working on competency-based models who are lined up behind us to do something similar."



Two-year degree for $5,000



One of College for America's first offerings will be an associate degree in general studies, with a focus on business administration. The cost is $1,250 every six months, or $5,000 for a student who completes the program in two years. A student who takes longer will pay more; a quick study will pay less.

By comparison, the 2,000-plus traditional students enrolled in the school's brick and mortar, four-year degree programs invest as much as $110,000 in tuition, accommodations and fees.

Students in the school's College of Online and Continuing Education, taking traditional courses offered by faculty online, pay an average $38,000 in tuition for a four-year degree.

The College for America is able to reduce costs substantially because it does not rely on paid faculty for day-to-day instruction.

CFA students work at their own pace, with no set end or start times for semesters or course offerings. They work with instructional materials created by SNHU personnel from a variety of sources and in a variety of media, with peer and mentor support from the online community and in the workplace.

At various points in the learning process, the work of the student is evaluated by an expert in the field known as a "reviewer," who may or may not be an SNHU faculty member. If the work meets the college standards, the student moves on to the next level.

The writing program, for example, starts with this competency: "Can write a paragraph." It moves on to "Can write a five-paragraph essay," and several competencies later ends with "Can write an appropriately researched and documented argumentative text."



A digital portfolio



The university certifies that the student can do those things, and provides online proof in the form of a digital portfolio containing the student's work in text, audio or video formats for review by an incumbent or potential employer.

Each student is assigned an online coach, with a maximum of 100 students per coach. The program already has 275 students, working with 10 reviewers and six coaches.

Employers who have signed up in New Hampshire include Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Manchester, Riverwoods Retirement Community in Exeter, the Moore Center in Manchester, Globe Manufacturing in Pittsfield and Northeast Delta Dental in Concord. The city of Memphis, Federal Express and ConAgra Foods have also signed deals for their employees.

The program will eventually be open to the public, but for now is available only through enrolled employers.

As part of the Education Department approval, SNHU had to develop a method for translating its competencies into a traditional transcript, should a student need one for a job or to apply for transfer of credits to another institution.

"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," said Leblanc. "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."

dsolomon@unionleader.com

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