A President's Reflections

The emperor wears a bunny suit

Posted on April 19, 2014

Last week, a marketing staff person at Eastern Washington U. named Jens Larson wrote a bit of a critique of SNHU’s online program and intimated that it might be no better than so many for-profits.  This is not an unusual zinger to throw our way when someone wants to be critical (and says a lot about the reputation of for-profits still) and if the audience is not large, we usually just ignore it.

His blog is here: http://www.uofadmissionsmarketing.com/2014/04/disruptive-higher-education-basically.html#!/2014/04/disruptive-higher-education-basically.html.

I had a pleasant e-mail exchange with Jens (some of which follows below), a smart guy who made some good points about our web site, and provided him with some of the facts that might set the record straight and he graciously offered to follow up, but it didn’t seem necessary.

Then a marketing consultant named Bob Johnson posted this somewhat gleeful or at least snarkyTweet. 

Marketers must read: a “does the emperor have clothes?” review of @SNHU and @snhuprez at http://bit.ly/1r4EN2K  Good stuff.

It was picked up and retweeted here and there.  And since Bob has over 6000 followers (and a pretty useful web site), and keeping in mind Jen’s helpful counsel that presidents should get proactive when their schools are being mischaracterized, I thought I might as well set the record straight here for Bob too.  Plus the dog got me up early and it’s the weekend and….his snarkiness just bugged me.  I know, I know, that’s not very grown up of me and Twitter is the home of snark (I’ve been guilty too).

Anway, I’ll use some of the exchange I had with Jens (which comes a bit further down).  The takeaways are:

  • That we are indeed trying to establish a national brand, thus our television ads.
  • We want to serve more students; we served non-traditional students before we ever had a residential campus and long before online learning.  It’s in our DNA– it’s what we do.
  • To expand we market (which is what Jens and Bob both get paid to do) and we do it well.  We want more people to know about us and come look and when they do they often like what they see. 
  • Most importantly, when students enroll they get great customer service  (there, I said it) in terms of processes, quick call backs, clear assistance and then superb student support and learning.
  • It’s backed up in the data that I share below, in the very high student satisfaction ratings we enjoy (96% of 4000 online students surveyed would recommend or highly recommend our program), and in the learning analytics we employ.

In the end, we are responding to a national imperative to educate more Americans, to do it a lower cost, and with better results.  We try to find ways to do all three.

Even more importantly,  I am responding to Bob’s mild snarkiness on behalf of the hundreds of idealists who work for SNHU and share with me a belief that what we are doing collectively is transforming lives (bear with the corniness here — its genuine; cue inspirational music).  It’s what we tried to capture in our current “bus” ads, those amazing stories.

So Bob, if you’re interested, here’s a little of my response to the blog post you so uncritically recommended….

Hi Jens,

Someone shared your recent blog about SNHU’s marketing and I’d love to chat with you about it.  I’m a tad hesitant, as you suggest I get defensive on SNHU’s behalf (goofy?  Ah maybe so), but I do actually think we are quite a bit different from U of P).  Not asking you to do anything with what I might share, but just want you to have a more complete picture as I found your piece thoughtful and smart, even if incomplete and not always on target.

The things I want to share are really just fact-based, not an argument of interpretation.

  • For example, on employment (you wondered about it in your blog): 86% of our undergraduates and 87% of graduate students are employed (I’m talking about online students here);
  • On default rate, we are around 6% — a fifth of what you typically see in for-profits;
  • Pressure on admissions counselors?  None really and we see that reflected in our very low turnover rate (can you get the #s);
  • Graduation rates?  Far better than for-profits, roughly 50% (slightly lower for undergrads and higher for grads) – far better than most community colleges, by the way.
  • U of XX (and XXX and others) are offering scholarships because they are priced so high.  We are not and we are proud of holding tuition flat, so we say it.  We also forsake any bookstore commission, rare among non-profits. 
  •  Our web site?  Yeah, you have a point.  I mean it works, so hard to argue with success.  But I don’t much like it and we are working on a major overhaul.  It drives our regular FT faculty crazy.

Anyway, as you can see, not trying to argue a case as much as fill in the gaps. 

If you’d like to chat, I’d be happy to call you some time.

All the best,


Jen graciously responded and said:

Hi Paul,

Thanks for reaching out, and thanks for the feedback. There’s no need to feel hesitant. Presidents should have teeth sometimes, which means getting defensive (or perhaps outgoing? proactive?) and correcting real and perceived errors, mischaracterizations, and oversights.

His email went on to critique our web site and offer other feedback, but wasn’t offered for more public consumption, so I’ll only excerpt the above portion.  I responded in part:

Hi Jens,

You’ve put your finger on the topic of some internal debate: the site undeniably works for us in terms of its reason for existing, as a marketing mechanism and as a gateway for interested students.  It doesn’t do other things we expect academic web sites to do: the kind of sharing of papers that WGU does, as you mention.  Contrast it with our www.collegeforamerica.org site.  This new site for that part of SNHU’s offerings comes much closer to what I think you are calling for.  However, if you define the SNHU site’s effectiveness in terms of recruitment, it is an undeniable success (we are the country’s fastest growing university and our traditional campus has gone from 2000 to 3000 students as well – at a time when other private, tuition dependent institutions with brands higher up the food chain are dying).  From a brand building perspective, not so much.  We hope to better the address this latter need in the redesign.

As for the kinds of numbers you mention, you’re right.  IPEDS blends everything and skews data (and a lot of what’s out there is old).

I’ve given you some of the key data points you mentioned in your blog, the employment and default rates, for example.

There are a LOT of schools that would kill for our graduation rates of 50% in online (I think EWU’s is much lower, no?  I know XXX’s is).

 As you saw from my previous email, our default rates are a fraction of what you see at for-profits.

In the informal back and forth of this exchange I was not as precise as I should have been regarding for-profits.  There have been a lot of bad players out there, but there are places like Capella and DeVry that do some really good work.  I’ve also X’d out names of other schools so as not publically criticize them (leaving Eastern Washington  U in only because it’s where Jen himself works).

I debated whether to respond or not to Bob and I have colleagues who think it better to just ignore the sniping, but we work in world that is supposed to value critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, the asking of questions before positing analysis, and spirited debate.  Jens seems like a good guy and I suspect Bob is too, but when they essentially cast the passionate work of a great staff and faculty in a negative light, it deserves a response.

If Bob or Jens would like to come visit, I’d gladly welcome them (hell, I’ll buy them a ticket) and they could walk through the halls of our building unescorted and talk to anyone they meet and see for themselves if we live our mission.  If they question whether real innovation is taking place (Jens sort of does), I’d invite them to spend time with the College for America staff, the faculty on the main campus (who were doing three-year programming long before it became a thing), the academic staff in online, to dive into our data analytics, explore our new CfA learning platform, or to spend the morning with the amazing kids in our SNHU Advantage Program. 

The NEASC vsiting team who did heaped praise on our efforts.  The many other institutions who come to learn echo those sentiments.  So Bob, the emperor is fully dressed, albeit in a bunny suit sometimes (part of the goofily endearing thing, I guess). 


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