As college tuition bills continue to outpace inflation, Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc is reversing course. Last fall, he opened a satellite campus in a suburban office park, where tuition runs $10,000 a year—one-third the cost of tuition, room, and board at the main campus in Manchester. LeBlanc’s cost-cutting forumula is simple: strip away the frills that usually come with the college experience. At the new campus, there’s no dining hall, dormitory, or glee club; just classrooms. The early returns are promising—the program, which started with thirty-five students, is doubling its enrollment this year, and a number of other schools are following suit, including the Arizona and Pennsylvania state university systems. The Washington Monthly’s Tim Murphy recently quizzed LeBlanc on the ins and outs of bargain-basement education.
What’s the basic idea behind the no-frills model?
I was thinking last year about the fact that we were building a $16 million dining hall that won’t improve the quality of education one little bit. So we asked the inverse: Could we offer the essential educational experience—lots of academic support and advising, and really good teaching, and small classes, the things that are at the heart of what we do—and strip away all of the other things that add cost? And would there be a market for that product?
Why would a student want to go to college in an office park?
The same set of sensibilities that says, “Give me the core pieces, give me the thing I need, the essentials,” says where it is is less relevant. In other words, what they need is a classroom in which good teaching and learning can take place. Everything else is extraneous. So as long as we can offer them great classroom space, they’re saying to us and the market, “We’re not interested in these other things, because these other things are not valuable to us.”
How does the student body at the satellite campuses compare to the student body at the main campus?
From looking at the general metrics, they align pretty precisely along the same lines. The range of GPAs, SAT scores, et cetera—not a whole lot of difference. Where they differ is in their economic means. These are students who by and large might not be able to afford to live on campus and pay the $35,000 price tag. The $10,000 price tag is much more workable.
Don’t you worry that if such a premium is placed on the classroom and scrapping everything else, students might lose something?
I do worry about it a little bit. “Do they not know what they don’t know?” is sort of the lingering question. But I remind myself that there is no one right student model, and there is no right educational model. So for this cohort of students who are very clear about what they want, we can provide a solution.
Speaking of reforming the classroom, you’ve written on your blog that college teaching “remains mired in learning models that are demonstrably ineffective”—what do you mean by that?
The structures that shape that teaching still tend to be [centered] around time in the seat and the basics of credit hours and courses taken. One of the places, for example, that we’re looking at right now is game design. Because game designers are very, very good at engaging users. [The goal is to] master something in order to get to the next level— we use that analogy for learning. And it’s a way in which you can then be highly individualized. You would then have students moving through their education at faster or slower rates, depending on their mastery. And that would be a dramatic shift.
Now that the no-frills plan has been in operation for a year, what have you learned?
I think what we’ve discovered is that there is a group of students for whom this very focused educational experience, focusing only on the educational experience, and offering a private-school, private-university, high-quality, small-classes model—it works. There are people out there who say, “We want this.” People vote with their pocketbooks. I mean, if you want to test an idea, ask people to pay for it.