Current Issues

That painful annual conversation

Posted on March 12, 2013

This is the time of year when prospective students and their families look at their acceptances and do the financial math and make decisions about the fall.  SNHU can be proud of what it does to keep education within reach of working families:

  • About 90% of our students receive aid;
  • We have increased scholarships and grants by millions of dollars;
  • We innovate new and affordable pathways;
  • We have kept tuition increases low (and had none at all three years ago) and remain one of the more affordable private universities in the region.  According to the new College Scorecard, our students graduate with less debt than their peers from many public institutions.

And yet every year I end up writing letters like the one below (I’ve obviously removed the actual names).  It is a wrenching exercise and I feel for the parents who of course dream big for their children and then have to painfully admit that they can’t make those dreams come true.  At least not in the ways they hoped.

In almost every case, we could “unpack” the circumstances for what they say about funding in higher education.  For example in this case (and here I want to be careful not to assume or to judge):

  • Is this a parent who put her own education in front of her child’s or a hard working single mom tryng to get an education to better provide?
  • She has $83,000 worth of debt and still no degree.  What went wrong with the system or her situation to let that happen?
  • Why apply only to one school, as she indicated?  Where was the high school college counselor (was there one?) or guidance to say this was a bad idea?
  • Did we make clear enough during the admissions process what the likely cost might be?  Did we share our cost calculator and urge them to run their likely numbers?  This is something we need to look at in our own processes.

I think about these issues a lot.  Some critics suggest that we ought to lower the cost of online programs (we are already among the most affordable, by the way) instead of providing a royalty to the traditional campus.  But online would not exist without the intellectual property developed on the main campus and the strong foundation it provides and we could not help needy students in all the ways we do without that royalty or cross-institutional payment.

What this case reminds us is that there is never enough and we need to do more to keep the transforming power of education in reach of the working poor. 

Dear Ms. XXXX,

I received your letter of February 28th and wanted to get right back to you. 

Given your circumstances, as you describe them (your own substantial educational loans of $83,000 and ongoing education), I understand both your reluctance to see BBBB take on debt and the struggle to make the math work in order for her to attend SNHU next fall.  BBBB is obviously a good student and that is reflected in her substantial grants and scholarship aid from our university, a full $19,000.  That is a lot of aid from the university and while your request for an additional $10,000 of scholarship aid would make SNHU financially feasible for BBBB, it would be an extraordinary level of support to provide one student when so many students have need.  It raises questions of fairness and precedent and how to help the greatest number of students in need with our fundamentally limited resources.

BBBB’s own limited resources probably means looking at more affordable options such as community college for the first two years of her education.  She could then transfer into a four-year institution such as SNHU and bring the total cost of her degree down to a more reasonable level.  If we can help advise her on options, I would be happy to have one of our admissions counselors reach out to BBBB.  We could certainly promise her admission and the current level of offered aid as long as she maintains her current high level of academic performance. This will be a painful process for BBBB if she has her heart set on SNHU.  My hope is that we can find an eventual path to us that can also work for her financially. 

My wife and I both come from very modest means and were the first kids in our family to go to college.  We had our hearts set on private schools, Connecticut College in her case and Northeastern University in mine, but discovered we could not afford them.  We had always been told that if we worked hard enough the institutions could take care of the cost.  It was a myth then and remains so today as universities struggle to balance the high cost of traditional residential education such as the one we offer with  keeping college within reach of working families.  We have increased our scholarship aid by millions of dollars, reined in tuition increases, and created new more affordable pathways, but there are still too many cases like BBBB’s and it pains me greatly to write this letter to you.

If it is any solace, my wife and I attended more affordable public institutions and had great educations that changed our lives.  We like to think we offer that kind of education to our students, but so do many of our peer institutions.  BBBB will be a success, but her path to success may not include SNHU, at least for the first part of her education.  I wish I had better news for you, Ms. XXXX, and if we can at least provide some counsel, please do let me know.

Sincerely,

 Paul LeBlanc, President

 

 

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