Current Issues

Setting the record straight again (sigh)

Posted on January 3, 2014

Another story about SNHU appeared in a national media outlet today (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/01/southern_new_hampshire_university_how_paul_leblanc_s_tiny_school_has_become.html) and while I’m always pleased to see our university get national attention, I am again (and a little wearily) philosophical about some reporters setting out to write the story they want, rather than the story they find.  In this case, Gabe Kahn employs the same array of tactics any writer uses – the choice of metaphors and comparisons, emphasis placed, and details left out – to paint a picture that is not accurate to the spirit or reality of what we are doing at SNHU.

A handful of examples from the Slate story today:

  1. Kahn writes:

In 2009, instead of cutting, LeBlanc asked the board to double down on the online division. He argued that rapid growth in online could quickly produce new revenues that could save the main campus in Manchester, N.H.

What he leaves out:

I had explained that we had been growing each year since 2003 and that we had been hit hard by the recession in 2009, as was every institution in the country.  Facing a deficit that year, we doubled down on our investment in online.  But he leaves our improving fiscal health out and frames our online efforts as a way to save an institution that was in peril.  We had, in fact, run growing surpluses every year between 2003 and 2009 and we were getting healthier, but that doesn’t fit his narrative or the headline which calls us “struggling” at the time.  This is just getting facts wrong.

  1. Kahn writes:

It’s a strategy borrowed from the aggressive recruiting techniques of the University of Phoenix and other for-profit schools. Many of those institutions have come under fire from Congress for gouging students, low completion rates, and inferior degree programs.  The similarities don’t end there.

What we shared and he ignored:

Comparing anyone to Phoenix is automatically an insult to most (fair or not to Phoenix) and what we actually said is that we borrowed the best of operational practices from the for-profits (customer service, data analytics, a sense of urgency and accountability) while eschewing the practices that cast them in such a poor light (such as those he mentions above).  Using actual examples and evidence, I pointed out the differences in our admissions processes, our far better graduation rates, our lower prices, and the ways we address quality in our programs.   Our similarities do not at all extend to these areas, but read his paragraph again and see if that is the sense he communicates.

  1. He goes to the thing that is most important, quality of academics, and writes:

It’s also difficult to determine just how strong an education SNHU is delivering. An online forum offers a decidedly mixed picture, with one review calling it “a great experience,” while another claims, “It is not quite a degree mill, but they give out 4.0’s for merely completing the work.” A tally of nearly 4,000 recent graduates conducted by the university showed satisfaction was increasing steadily and that 95 percent would recommend SNHU.

The reality:

It really isn’t so difficult to assess what we do in terms of quality.  Kahn cites an online forum with a handful of complaints (social media is where unhappy people go to get a larger voice, remember).  We can also point to social media where our praises our sung (including for our quality and rigor) in far greater numbers.  Should he quote from those sources?  That would not be good evidence either.  We instead gave him the survey results (from 4000 students) and to his credit he shares them, but with only equal weight, as if they are the same.  He might have written:

“While there are complaints and praise for SNHU’s quality in various social media outlets, a recent survey of 4000 recent graduates conducted by the university showed satisfaction was increasing steadily and that 95% would recommend SNHU.”

He might have then added something from the lengthy details we gave him about how we actually work to ensure quality: the millions spent on bolstering academic staff, the data analytics we have for academics, our work on outcomes, the weekly external oversight, and the predictive work we do, but that would not have fit the narrative.  In fact, I’d challenge any traditional institution (after all, that’s the implicit comparison he is making) to match what we do in terms of quality oversight, including his own USC.

  1. Finally, he writes:

SNHU boasts six-year online graduation rates of about 50 percent for bachelor’s students. While LeBlanc concedes that’s still abysmal—“Would you accept a 50 percent success rate for surgery? For construction?”—it’s partly explained by the fact that most SNHU students are part time and take even longer to finish.

What I actually said was:

That our 50% rate in online is extraordinarily good, especially compared to the for-profits and for many non-profits.  I did not say it was abysmal.  What I did say that was that as good as it is, 50% is still only the national average for all schools and as an industry we have to do better.  He makes it sound like I was critical of our own performance, when in fact I was lauding it and quite proud.

There are quotes that are slightly skewed or offered in isolation and without the follow up comments that qualify or clarify.  For example, he didn’t get my comment about what for-profits can invest in quite right.  That is more run of the mill and I’ve come to accept that as a norm for some reporters. 

It’s not a terrible story.  It’s just not a very good one, if by “good” one means capturing a story in its essence.  It’s not as if we don’t wrestle with legitimate questions.  Kahn mentions our reliance on adjuncts and we think a lot about that question (and the role of adjuncts is a hot topic these days in general).  We have hired our first group of full-time faculty for online and we are considering hiring another 25 (which we shared and he left out) and we have started to look at what kinds of supports and benefits we might eventually offer our adjuncts to further cement their commitment to SNHU, while improving their professional lives at the same time.  We wrestle with brand and reputation, given three very different academic/business units.  For example, how the web site, which works so well for the online operation, feels less right for the more traditional campus.  Kahn rightly mentions some alumni concern that while we build a national brand, it might feel to the world like we are only online. And on some days, we simply get some things wrong, thugh we try to be diligent, quickly fix our mistakes, and improve.

I don’t know if Gabe Kahn actually wrote a better story and an editor made changes that skewed the final product.  I don’t know if someone else chose the headline (Amazon?  Really?  We are still dwarfed by for-profits like Phoenix and DeVry and Kaplan and also by non-profits like Liberty.).  But the essential narrative is too constructed not to be his and while the essential facts are there, it does not cohere into what the facts support, but his narrative misses: that SNHU offers a degree at lower costs than most, with 95% student satisfaction, and a graduation rate that puts for-profits and most community colleges to shame.  He also fails to see the benefits that accrue to the traditional campus (and, after all, he sets out to say how we “saved” a traditional campus): large investments, new buildings, award winning benefits, more financial aid to the 90% of students on aid, and record enrollments (50% enrollment growth in the last five years while many traditional institutions are heading the other way).   Isn’t that really the evidence that the ongoing project of re-inventing SNHU has worked?

It is not that I wish writers would only tell our story the way we would like it told (I mean, that would be nice and all), but that they would tell it fairly, fully, and accurately.  We give unusual access to the media and do so with the belief that we will simply get a fair shake.  Reporters who cover higher education for a living and actually understand what we do generally get it right.  What is interesting this time is that Kahn is an academic and a professor at USC, a wealthy and very traditional elite university.  Maybe the issue is one of bias.  Doing a story such as this one, I wish we could have persuaded Kahn to actually visit campus and to see firsthand what we do.  We have had a large number of traditional schools visit us and when they see what we do and how we do it, especially the focus on the students and the importance of human relations (for example, our advising is standard-setting), they tend to drop the increasingly tired “factory, cookie-cutter” metaphors and realize that we can harness technology to create highly personalized learning at scale and with terrific results in terms of quality and rates of success.  Many confide that their very traditional institutions do not put nearly put the same focus on students that we do.   

Anyway, I might simply ignore this story, but when I recently testified before the Senate HELP Committee, I saw how an earlier poorly done article misinformed some of the questions posed to me.  For example, one senator had the notion that poor students were being asked to subsidized wealthy students on the main campus (tell that to the 90% of our main campus students working and taking out loans and receiving grants from us), when in fact, in FY13 the main campus required no “cross-subsidy.”  Another cited surpluses for online that were inaccurate and inflated.  I was able to address the questions and staffers later acknowledged our reality.

It is just as important that our own stakeholders remember our reality and not the one Gabe Kahn erroneously constructs in his article.  We have to be better in lots of ways.  We have to sort out what it means to have three very different academic/business units.  We have wrestle with the very different roles of faculty in each of those units and implications for governance and academic freedom.  We are, in many ways, creating a new hybrid non-profit, one that melds a lot of the best operational practices of the for-profits with the values and mission of our non-profit status (and don’t let anyone tell you there isn’t a difference).  I wish that was the story Kahn had told – -with all the tough questions it raises – because I believe that traditional non-profit higher education is in crisis and needs to re-invent itself.  We are doing our best in our own way.  Others will find their path.  Collectively, we need reporters to keep us honest, to share our successes and mistakes, and to chronicle the work as objective observers, as constructive critics, and as accurate disseminators of the information.  In the case of this most recent article, I’m afraid that Kahn falls a bit short on all three counts.

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