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Reclaiming Higher Ed for All Students

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, discusses the way in which higher education needs to change to be more accessible to all students.
Paul LeBlanc
Paul LeBlanc

Higher education needs to change if it’s going to return to its initial promise as unlocking opportunity and providing social mobility. Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc knows firsthand how higher education can change a person’s life. As an immigrant, he reaped the benefits of America’s higher education system — one that he says today doesn’t work for too many people.

“Today, if you think about it, for how many people is higher education part of the problem? You know, whether it's elite higher education and the varsity blues scandal, which by the way, didn't surprise that many people. It was just confirmation of what they always believed, which was the game was rigged,” he says.

Through innovation and hard work, LeBlanc has spent 18 years transforming what higher education can look like to meet the needs of all students. In this episode of the EdCast, LeBlanc shares how he led changes in his institutions and what that means for students. He also ponders how the entire system of higher education needs to change and whether that can take place.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Paul LeBlanc knows higher education isn't working for everyone. He's the president of Southern New Hampshire University, where he's implemented many changes to flip the higher ed model in an effort to put students first. He says too many colleges and universities have strayed from making decisions in the best interest of students, and now, higher education only works for a small fraction of the population. He believes higher education can be transformed, though, with some reimagining and innovation. I talked to President LeBlanc about what that might look like, but first, I asked him what the point even is of higher education today.

Paul LeBlanc: The point needs to be unlocking opportunity and providing social mobility, and to be an engine of social change. That hasn't changed, Jill, but we need to get back to a place where American higher ed did that very, very well, and I lived that. I was an immigrant kid. My parents had eighth grade educations. We immigrated when I was a kid from French Appalachia, a hard scrabble farming village in New Brunswick, Canada, and I was the first in my family to go to college, and I did through affordable, high quality, public funded in that case, higher education, which transformed my life and the life of my children.

I'm an unapologetic, schmaltzy believer in the American dream, with higher ed at the middle of it. When I had that experience, higher education was seen as part of the solution, how we get America right and more equitable and fair. Today, if you think about it, for how many people is higher education part of the problem? You know, whether it's elite higher education and the varsity blues scandal, which by the way, didn't surprise that many people. It was just confirmation of what they always believed, which was the game was rigged.

But more importantly, when you think about a system that puts the kind of pressures it does on high school kids during the admissions project, if you think about a system that fails 45% of the people who start it, if you think about a system that saddles students, and students who never completed with $1.6 trillion of debt, second only to home mortgages, if you think of the exploitation of college athletes, if you think about the just misalignment of values, in which literally, the single highest paid president in higher education is a football coach at the University of Alabama, you have to believe that this is a system that's gone awry, and I want to get it back because I love it. I love higher education. But it's not working as well as it needs to right now.

Jill Anderson: Right, and when you list out all of those things that you just mentioned, things are very grim when you have them all lined up next to each other in black and white like that. It's hard to hear.

Paul LeBlanc: Yeah, and it gets grimmer for those who I care about most in this equation, or in this conversation, which are students of color, first generation kids like I was, the kids of working families, and adults, by the way, because I keep using this expression kids to talk about these young students that come out of high school, but the reality is that so much of higher education today is a working adult holding down a job, maybe already a parent, maybe a veteran, and higher education isn't very well built for those students.

Jill Anderson: What is going on there? Because higher ed isn't built for everyone as you just said, and it's built for its own needs really. How do we get past that?

Paul LeBlanc: Yeah, it's an interesting question. I've been working on a project really to look at how is it that large scale systems that are really built to uplift people so often come to dehumanize them? This happens in K-12, it happens in healthcare, and it happens in higher education. What happens is the systems start to really prioritize themselves, the system, over the students they are supposed to serve, so how does that play out in higher education today? If you take a look at the chase of status, you know, I think the Harvards, the Yales of the world have disproportionately impacted our sense of what matters.

You've got what Clay Christensen, you know, the late, wonderful professor at Harvard Business School and a dear friend of mine, and a former trustee, what he would describe as sort of status creeping, status chasing that happens, so two year schools want to do four year degrees, access schools want to do more research. Research schools are conscious of how many dollars they bring in. Not a whole lot of that has to do with students. If you take a look at what we've come to build on our campuses in terms of facilities and the cost of running campuses, there's continued creep, in which we are all complicit, including families, by the way.

Sometimes we'll tag along on a tour of our campus, and I heard a parent asking about a food court, and when will my child have a single room, like can they get a single room as a freshman or do they have to wait? It was sort of one thing after another, and then in the next breath said, "But why is it so expensive?" And I thought well, you just kind of listed all the things that are part of this. There are many factors that contribute to why higher education doesn't work as well as it needs to. That would include, as critics have pointed out also, the sort of lack of discipline around controlling cost, what we do to compete against each other. All of those things come together, but it's always what we incent and what we prize.

Someone once said you get the outcomes from the system as you've designed the system, so if I'm looking at much of higher education today, we'll reward scholarship and research over teaching, for example, and yet, students should be the most important thing that we do. We prioritize things live division one football on Saturdays, a multi-billion dollar industry that doesn't improve student learning one little bit, so it's all of those things I think come into play, and if they're looking at status and rankings, as so many schools do, kind of who you admit becomes more important, and it's sort of the analogy, I have a friend who works in healthcare said, you know, they have mortality and morbidity statistics, and he runs a heart clinic.

He said, "I can look much better in the standings and the rankings if I just stop taking people with heart problems." If you take a look at the degree to which things like the SAT scores and high school GPA as part of your rankings, then you're going to care less about kids who come from trouble schools, who are going to need more help and who sort of bring those down, so it's a perfect storm, just a lot of factors that come into play here. Remember, when you talk about higher education though, only 13% of the American college student population is a full-time residential living on a campus, and yet we talk about higher ed like they're all about campuses, and it's really not.

Jill Anderson: Some of the stats and numbers, I think it's very hard once you get into the world of higher ed, and you go through and you complete it, to realize that so few people do complete it.

Paul LeBlanc: That's right. I mean, on average it's somewhere around 45% of those who start college come complete.

Jill Anderson: Yeah.

Paul LeBlanc: The result of that is you have somewhere around 37 million Americans who have some relatively useless credits, no degree, and now have debt without the degree that goes with it, so it's kind of the worst trifecta.

Jill Anderson: Yeah.

Paul LeBlanc: That's a lot of who comes to the online programs that my institution and others offer. 80% of our students come with credits from other schools, and they're coming back to complete that degree they never finished for any number of reasons, because not to have a college degree, not to have a post-secondary credential in America today, is to increasingly condemn oneself to the underclass economically speaking.

Jill Anderson: I want to talk about your university and some of the work that you've done there to push back against some of these, I guess we would call them structures, systems in higher education that make it so difficult for people to afford it, to attend, to work around just their business of their lives, or whatever their lives might look like, to finish their degree, so you've really embraced online learning, online degree programs, a synchronous learning time, and just not having set times for courses. How challenging was it to sort of make these changes in your own university, and what have been the trade-offs?

Paul LeBlanc: It's always challenging to innovate and do change, as you know. I always say that, and I get a chuckle out of my colleagues, that the bigger your endowment and the more status you enjoy, the harder it is for you to do the things we did, so SHU was in part able to do this, I was in part able to do this, because we were unknown, we were a kind of third tier, if there's a sort of four tier system in the world, so there was a real hunger to do things differently, to be better. I remember when I went through the search process for this job, every stakeholder group said we want to get to the next level.

Now they define that in all kinds of ways, but there was a hunger to change, and if you look at much of higher ed, particularly that where there's no steeped in tradition, they sort of have a lot of status, they kind of drink their own Kool-Aid in many instances around that, there's no real desire to change that. Change in those circumstances is extraordinarily hard, so first you've got to start with an institution, I think, that is positioned in the educational landscape in such a way as that there is a willingness to try, and if you take a look at the big innovative institutions, you know, the usual suspects when you ask people, so ASU.

Well ASU, when Michael Crow, who's brilliant, took it over, was kind of the butt of the joke. It was the party school. It was the coursed up cousin to University of Arizona, the flagship R1 research university, and Michael did a brilliant job, but he could because he had a school that was sort of on the margins. If you take a look at WGU, created out of whole class, no tradition to buck. If you take a look at University of Maryland Global Campus, that was created as a separate entity within a system, as opposed to being part of an existing institution. If you look at us, kind of relatively unknown, in all of those instances, what's true about them? They weren't well established, well empowered, well regarded institutions to start.

I think that was the critical piece. Once we went down this road, we actually, you know, we have to be smart. You have to look at who's doing it well, and people cringe a little bit when I say this, but we had actually looked at the early years of University of Phoenix, because before they went off the rails, they actually were doing some pretty innovative stuff, like they actually cared about customer service, a phrase that most of us still can't even use in higher education, right? It's anathema. But they actually thought about when are offices going to be open, how fast to respond to students, so we started to look at what kind of practices would actually improve our student experience, and then we got very, very focused on what has come to be more widely known now, but some of Clay Christensen's work around jobs to be done.

When we think about who we want to service online, what do they need from us, and really go deep on that question, so that's when we get at things like they need flexibility around time and place. If you are trying to tell a working adult who's in a retail industry making minimum wage they have to be at a certain location at a certain time every week, that's really hard because they may not even have their schedule for next week until Friday, right? I remember this really powerful conversation with a young woman who was from Roxbury, Massachusetts, a very poor community, single mom, zero social capital, financial capital, and she had a seven year old daughter who suffered from chronic respiratory illness.

If you looked at her transcripts, she had been to both Roxbury Community College in Bunker Hill, which is fine, community colleges, but her transcript was littered with Ws and Fs. I asked her what was going on and she said every time my little girl gets sick, I would have to miss class, sometimes for a week, sometimes longer, and I'd fall behind, and I'd miss exams, and I wouldn't get work in, and if it was early enough in the semester, I could take the W, I could withdraw. If it was too late, I took the F. But every time she took the F she was bringing down her total Pell Grant eligibilities, which had less money in the quote, unquote, "bank" to work with.

When we were able to put her in a program untethered to time, a self-paced program, she flourished. She was really smart. That wasn't the question. She raced to the completion of her associate's degree. She was really good. We just didn't have a system that was built for her because it was built around time and place, so when you asked that question about what was hard, what was challenging, we had to rethink some of these fundamental things that we take for granted of in our delivery models.

Jill Anderson: I love that about time because that to me should seem so obvious, but it isn't.

Paul LeBlanc: It's most important, though, in the context of equity.

Jill Anderson: Yeah.

Paul LeBlanc: Poor people have less time. Everything takes longer when you're poor. You know, I have a washer and dryer down the hall. I can literally on my way to get a cup of coffee, throw a load of laundry in, but if you don't have one in your apartment, it takes longer to have clean clothes. I can do it thoughtlessly, as you can, poor person can't. When am I going to get to the laundromat? I got to bundle this stuff up. How do I get there? If I don't have a car, it takes more time to get groceries into my fridge. If I don't have a good healthcare program through my employer, it takes longer for me to get simple healthcare needs attended to.

Everything takes more time, and it's not just the amount of time. It's the control over time, so time is a privilege. We understand that, but it's a privilege in both respects, so when you build programs that are built for the convenience of a system, because my institutional needs are really well served by having fixed time and place. I can schedule people, I know who I need and when, I know where people need to be. It makes sense. When I schedule my day, and I'm trying to sort of make my employees happy, when I can say we start at eight and close at four, it works really well for them. It doesn't work for someone who gets out of work at five.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Paul LeBlanc: Like wait a minute. All the offices are closed, no one's there, so in our own institution, we go until midnight, and we go through the weekend because that's when busy adults actually have time back in their control again. Yeah, time is really critical, and it's not just the convenience factor. It's an equity factor, because poor people, and oftentimes underserved communities, those people, and people of color often, because there's a correlation with poverty, have less time.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Paul LeBlanc: We make it harder.

Jill Anderson: But across the landscape, do you see a lot of that flexibility with time in a lot of universities and colleges?

Paul LeBlanc: Online programs give you flexibility if they're asynchronous, as ours are, and many of them are. That gives you  flexibility. It's not self-paced, but it gives you more flexibility. I used to say that before we did asynchronous courses, if you have an agreed upon time or just even forget about online, if you were an adult student, get out of work at five, you race to the campus, or maybe one of our branch campuses. We had many of them. You don't have time to go home for dinner, so you grab something, a fast food dinner, and you eat it in the parking lot. Then you go to class for a couple hours, three hours, and then you go home, and you probably missed your kids. They're probably already in bed, right?

That's the sort of old model. When we could move to online and say you decide when you're going to log on because we're asynchronous, now you go home after work, you can maybe catch the kids' soccer game. You have dinner together, you help them with their homework, you tuck them in, you put the dishes in the dishwasher. You put your big furry slippers on and make a cup of tea, and at 9:30 p.m. for the next couple of hours, you will be a student. No surprise that people voted with their feet en masse and went to online. That's why continued education centers closed, because they weren't built as well as online was to work with this huge population of adult learners.

Jill Anderson: What do you think keeps other colleges and universities from kind of moving more toward that model, which seems like it would really work well for so many students?

Paul LeBlanc: Right, so you get back to the earlier point we made, which is that large systems and organizations at some point start to care more about what works better for them. Look at for the privileged 13%, and many of those aren't privileged, but for the young students, typically traditional age, young students living on a campus, they have a lot more flexibility with their time, so time based systems aren't as problematic for them.

Jill Anderson: Okay.

Paul LeBlanc: I say that with some hesitancy because we know a lot of the [inaudible 00:16:22] and residential students now work, work multiple jobs, all kinds of things going on out there. But generally speaking, that sort of works for them. You need a different kind of flexibility with your staff. We have to have people who are willing to work in the evenings and weekends, so everything becomes more complicated. It's harder to standardize, and the other thing is that our whole industry is built around a credit hour, a measure of time.

I have someone who's called the credit hour the Higgs boson particle of high ed. It's like the dark matter that pulls the universe together. It's how we structure learning, it's how we unitize learning, it's how we apportion faculty workload. It's how we schedule our classrooms, and most importantly, it's how we give out $155 billion of financial aid every year. Everything is built around time structures, and when in financial aid for example, you get into these arcane rules about how are you measuring satisfactory academic progress, for example, and how are you defining your term, and how do you define your credit hour, everything pushes us back to time.

We have built a system based on time. The credit hour is pretty good at telling you how long someone sat. It's pretty bad as a measure of actual learning. It doesn't actually tell you how much people have learned, so I think, you know, we have been very, very interested in competency based approaches to learning, which actually measure one's mastery of skills and competencies, and what they know, versus simply how long someone sat, and assigning a pretty problematic artifact to that called a grade.

Jill Anderson: I was going to ask about the competency based system and what that kind of looks like as opposed to this time system.

Paul LeBlanc: Yeah, so I'm going to keep it abstract for one second and then I'll try to be more practical. At abstract level, the credit hour says time is fixed, learning is variable, so at the end of 15 weeks, the end of the term, that's a fixed period, I'm going to take a snapshot, and I'm going to say how is everyone doing in this class? The variable will be Jill gets the A, Paul LeBlanc gets the B, someone else gets a C, someone else gets a B, so the learning is all over the map. What was fixed? Time. What was variable? Learning. In a competency based model, you flip it, so the learning is constant and the time is the variable.

If Jill can demonstrate mastery in three weeks, and I take six weeks, and someone else takes 10 weeks, the variable has been time, but we all had to demonstrate a level of mastery, a pre-defined level of mastery to be able to progress, to move on to the next thing, and I think the way I would define competency is, because people sometimes think that it's about pedagogy, or that it dictates a kind of approach, or that it's only good for vocational kinds of things or hands on kinds of things, but not abstract reasoning, is that competencies are really just an architecture that ask you two questions, that ask two simple questions involved. One is what are the claims you make for what students can do with what they've learned?

You can ask that of philosophy, you can ask that of electrical engineering. You can ask that of nursing, you can ask that of English. It doesn't dictate. It just says you've got students studying with you. What will they be able to do with what they've learned from you? What are your claims? Then the second thing is how do you know? What is the nature of your assessment? Because so much of assessment in learning is really not very good.

Jill Anderson: COVID kind of opened up the doors a little bit for some flexibility. In some colleges and universities you saw some movement toward virtual learning, online learning, or a little step, little steps away from this residential experience, and that was about a year ago. But now it's a year later, and it seems like a lot of colleges and universities have just returned right back to that traditional residential model. I keep thinking if COVID isn't going to be something to crack open this existing model, how are we ever going to get there?

Paul LeBlanc: Yeah, it's interesting. Remember, it wasn't a very good experience for a lot of people who were pulled into it against their will, so you have institutions who weren't interested having to offer remote learning to students who didn't sign up for it, so if you were designing a national experiment in online learning, if you wanted it to fail, it would probably look like the one we had. It was not a great experience for many, many people involved, and then secondly, you had a lot of institutions with no experience trying to do this, so you've got a kind of impoverished, poor model, which became for many of the critics, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. See, I told you online learning is not as good. But look what you built, right?

That's true. All of that is true, and we certainly, I have colleagues who can't wait to go rushing back to the way it was before 2019, which is, I don't think, a possibility, frankly, but we'll find that out, if I'm right, the hard way. What you're having now is, I think, a major shift for a lot of institutions to say, you know what? We need to do more of this. Maybe we didn't get it quite right, but we kind of recognize the possibilities. You also have a lot of institutions with really broken business models who are saying hey, we need new sources of revenue, and we weren't in that space. We kind of got dragged into it against our will. We can see the SHUs of the world. We can see the WGUs of the world, the ASUs of the world. They're doing really, really well with online. Maybe that could be something that's part of our business model as well, so you've got a business model incentive for many of these institutions.

Then you have the demand signals of students, who said look, I hate being deprived of the campus experience, and I can't wait to get back, but I actually like the flexibility that online gave me. I think that in the future, institutions are going to have to build towards fluidity with their sort of academic models, which is I want to be able to access my learning in whatever way makes the most sense for me on any given day, and that requires a kind of fluidity, so today, I'm going to go to class because I see my friends there. I just like the structure, and this is a topic where it's better if I'm in the room with the professor, but next week I'm traveling with the baseball team, so I'm going to switch to just fully online for the same class, because that's going to fit my schedule better in the moment.

Oh, tomorrow it's snowing? I don't feel like trudging across campus or driving to campus. I'm just going to go online. It's the way that American workers are thinking about their work, right? We know that there's profound change in the workplace now, and the first question out of a lot of prospective employees' mouths are, "What is your policy on remote work? Do I have flexibility? Can my kids have a snow day? Can I work from home that day? Is that going to be easy or hard?" I think there's a version of that that's going to play out with learning as well, so what are the ways that I can access my learning? Do I have some flexibility in this? I actually think we, like so many things with the pandemic, it will accelerate us down a path we were going to go down, and were already going down before the pandemic.

Jill Anderson: Well, this has been really insightful and imaginative. Thank you so much for your time.

Paul LeBlanc: No, it's a pleasure. I think it's, for all of us who love this industry, it's hard to see it go through these changes, and it's difficult, but I'm really excited about what's possible on the other side, and I think we can do a much better job for students.

Jill Anderson: Paul LeBlanc is the president of Southern New Hampshire University. He is the author of Students First: Equity, Access, and Opportunity in Higher Education. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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