Illumination by Modern Campus

Paul LeBlanc (Southern New Hampshire University) on A President's Perspective on the Shifting Landscape of Higher Ed

February 29, 2024 Modern Campus
Paul LeBlanc (Southern New Hampshire University) on A President's Perspective on the Shifting Landscape of Higher Ed
Illumination by Modern Campus
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Illumination by Modern Campus
Paul LeBlanc (Southern New Hampshire University) on A President's Perspective on the Shifting Landscape of Higher Ed
Feb 29, 2024
Modern Campus

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast host Shauna Cox was joined by Paul LeBlanc to discuss how higher education has evolved over the past two decades and the success behind SNHU in delivering programming that meets the needs of learners in the modern age. 

Show Notes Transcript

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast host Shauna Cox was joined by Paul LeBlanc to discuss how higher education has evolved over the past two decades and the success behind SNHU in delivering programming that meets the needs of learners in the modern age. 

Voiceover:Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today’s episode, we speak with Paul LeBlanc, who is President of Southern New Hampshire University. Paul and podcast host Shauna Cox discuss how higher education has evolved over the past two decades and the success behind SNHU in delivering programming that meets the needs of learners in the modern age.  

Shauna Cox (00:03):Paul LeBlanc, welcome to the Illumination podcast.

Paul LeBlanc (00:06):It's great to be with you, Shauna.

Shauna Cox (00:07):Absolutely. So we just want to kick it off. We're into the new year, a little bit underway. What have been some of the most significant trends that you've seen change in the higher ed space during your tenure as president of SNHU?

Paul LeBlanc (00:26):Well, that tenure is pretty long. It's coming up on 21 years. I'll be stepping out of this role on June 30th. So I've seen a lot of change. So what are the big trends if you think about the last 20 years? Certainly online education. When we started we were considered sort of a disruptive player, and this was people looked to scan and there were questions about quality and we've just seen online take off. So when we started out, one of our questions was how do we compete against the, for-profits that dominate the online space, they don't dominate the online space anymore. So the big players are US and W-G-U-A-S-U, university of Merrill Global Campus, Purdue Global, all non-for-profits. And we've seen this massive decline of the for-profit sector, which if you remember at their height, they educated 12% of all American college students. It was a big deal.

(01:21):So that's certainly a very big change. I think another one is, and it really started with the recession of 2009, 2010, is a real questioning about the ROI value and cost of a higher education, a kind of almost what has become a crisis. So that 52% now of all Google searches for higher ed are for non-degree programs. People are looking for alternatives to programming that feels like, I'm not sure this will actually unlock the kind of economic opportunity that it historically did. I'm not sure I trust the skills that I will have and that employers will trust what I have and besides I can't afford it and I don't want to take on a huge amount of debt. And that shift in debt and value proposition also mirrors a steady decline of public support for higher education from a financial perspective. So if you take a look at something like the Pennsylvania public higher ed system, it wasn't so, so long ago that 70% of the cost of educating a student was born by the state and 30% by the student.

(02:32):That's absolutely flipped now. So now you've got all of this debt burden that goes to students and American College students carry 1.7 trillion of student debt collectively behind only home mortgages as the biggest pool of debt in the country. So that's a huge shift and a real problem. The others that we see now more recently would be, I think the rise in microcredentials are sort of non-degree offerings, which I mentioned a moment ago. There are a lot of reasons, it's still not very well sorted out yet. As credential engine reports, there are over a million microcredentials on the market and students and employers like, well, what is this and what do I make of it and do I understand what it is and will somebody value it? Should I trust it? All of that. So that's a big one. And then of course the huge one that's washing over us like a tidal wave is ai.

(03:28):And I'm in the camp that thinks it changes everything. So we're at the beginning now of the next revolution across society. But certainly if you think about higher education is a knowledge fact. Universities are knowledge factories in a knowledge economy in which we are no longer as human beings. The most powerful entities when it comes to declarative knowledge, that's a pretty slow boring recognition. Like, okay then what are we about? How do we have to rethink our majors? What does it mean to use ai? What does it mean to have an algorithmic coworker at your disposal at your side? All of these questions are, we're just in the beginning of sorting through those. So it's been an exciting 20 years. And I think the last thing I would say is that the understanding that's still slow to dawn on policymakers I think and people in Washington, but that the average American college student is no longer that shiny faced 18-year-old sitting under a leafy tree with his or her friends on a college quad. That isn't the norm. So we're finally getting our arms around that I think.

Shauna Cox (04:38):Absolutely. And I want to go back to a word that you said earlier in the terms of revolution. I think it's fair to say that your focus is really on redesigning a university to be more accessible, to reach that more diverse population of learners. As you mentioned that they are the new majority, I guess you would say, within those 18 year olds. So what impact do you think the work that you and your team have done to scale more accessible and flexible education models and what that impact has had on the broader education industry?

Paul LeBlanc (05:14):So over the 20 years, we've grown from about 25 project students to now over 250,000. And we're the largest university according to the last iPad supports the largest university in the us. So if you just take a look at footprint, I think people sort of recognize us, right? What are those guys doing and how are they getting so big at a time when lots of schools are struggling? So we have one day a month where universities come to visit and do a deep dive. We're very open, no, we should share our best practices. There are 40 million Americans who need to complete a degree because they get some credits and a lot of debt and they still don't have a credential. There's a lot for all of us to do. And there's a sort of term that Goldie at Chronicle higher ed, no, maybe Lee Gardner at the Chronicle coin Cutting.

(06:03):There were Omega University. And I guess if you look at our size compared to others, we would say you were a big university, but we're like 1% of the market. It's not a monopolistic presence. If you think of mega university or gobbling everything up, 1% of the market is not gobbling everything up. Sorry that sounds defensive, but just drives me a little crazy. But I do think people do watch and say, how are these guys growing and what are they doing? And can we go visit and take some of those practices and apply them to our students? And I think our impact has been to really look at things like competency-based education. I think WGU remains the unquestioned leader in that space, but we did a different model called direct assessment and we see CBE now making its way across the industry. And I think people are, I think hard about that.

(06:48):I think our focus on non-traditional learner, when people come to visit, they're probably two things that they're most taken by. So one is that we have a very coaching centric learner model. So we kind of plant our flag on the relationship of academic advisors with their students. You go from course to course instructor to instructor, you're not on a campus where you're running into professor. Again, we're big, so you may not have the same instructor again, but the one constant is that your academic advisor is with you through the whole of your experience. And for our learners who they're studying at night, it's nine o'clock, they put their kids to bed, they've made a cup of tea, they're logging in, you can feel isolated and is really powerful to know that there's someone in your corner who makes you feel like you matter who's paying attention and supporting you.

(07:37):That's huge and critical to our success. It's kind of a secondary concern at most universities and I think of our academic advisors would really being more life coaches in anything. So that's one. The second I think that people come away impressed with is our use of data. We have 75 people in our data analytics team. We measure everything. And invariably when a university visits us, a president or provost will turn to his or her team and say, how come I don't get these insights? They don't use data. We have insights into almost everything we do for good or bad. Sometimes we just like, whoa, what's going on here? Our numbers aren't looking good. We got to pick up our game. So I think those are the two things that people really pay attention to.

Shauna Cox (08:21):Absolutely, and I love the approach that you're taking in terms of being open about what you do. I think that's really important to be sharing your resources and your strategies and things like that in the market. So now that you've spent 20 years in the industry, we're going to start looking ahead. How do you expect to see the higher ed space continue to evolve over the next decade and what do you think are some defining traits that will be in that time?

Paul LeBlanc (08:50):Yeah, so I think if you think about higher education, no single higher ed think we sometimes use that term monolithically. We forget that too often that the community colleges educate 50% of American college students and that we have all kinds of education and we have values based education like Catholic or military put, military and the kind of values based. So it, it's a rich ecosystem and I like to use the term ecosystem to describe higher education with lots of interconnected parts. And I think what we will see will be a broader array of providers. So I don't think universities are going away, but I think there'll be lots of places where people get their education and they just won't just be universities. I think commensurately, there will be a broader array of credentials. I think degrees two and four year and masters and PhDs of course will remain important, but they won't be the only credentials that matter.

(09:46):I think we will stop thinking about learning as a sequential process where everything's in neat boxes. It already isn't that for lots of people. So it isn't necessarily the best to come out of high school and go right into a university degree program. You may not be ready, you may not know what you want to study. It's too expensive to be experimenting. If you think about going to the residential campus, there's a big important coming of age experience that people pay for. Get out from under my parents' roof, live with my friends in an intentional community, study abroad and kind of grow up, figure out what it's all about. It's an expensive way to grow up. So lots of people find other ways I think, to do that as well. But I think so greater array of providers in the ecosystem, greater array of credentials in the ecosystem.

(10:33):And then I think the other thing that we're seeing now emerge is the importance of the workforce and the employer. So sometimes I've said employers will be the accreditors of choice in the future. That is, I might be willing to take a program that doesn't have credits, that isn't an accredited program, but where a really important employer says, you know what, if you take this program that's really good and we value it and we pay a premium for people who come out of that program, you see a lot of people say, I'm good. That's the validation I need. Because what does accreditation do? It's a reassurance that the program you're in has value in the market. Now look at grad schools and may still want you to come out of an accredited program, but there are a ton of people who don't go to grad school IE most.

(11:14):So I think we'll see that's how the ecosystem will change. And then there's this more fundamental change we allude to earlier, which is I think AI is going to dramatically change the nature of work and the workforce. And we're going to have to think about to the extent that universities prepare people for the workforce, that's certainly why they come to us. If you've asked, the number one reason continues to be I want to unlock a good career path. We have a lot of work to do. McKinsey tells us that 60 something percent, 65% of all jobs will be dramatically redefined by ai. Well, if we're preparing people for those jobs, we better figure that out and do it quickly. We have to rethink curriculum. And universities are not great at reinventing curriculum. I think we'll see jobs fall into four boxes. I think we will see whole swaths of knowledge work and obliterated.

(12:06):I think there'll be jobs that just go away. I wouldn't be betting big on accounting. I think that's going to be largely automated. I think we'll have far fewer accountants, for example. I think that there'll be jobs that are utterly untouched. If you're a dancer, you probably shouldn't worry too much about ai. You're good, right? If you're a clinical psychologist, you're probably good though AI might be part of your world. Then there's a big swath of jobs, as McKinsey says, it won't go away, but they'll look so different and we'll have to figure that out. And then there'll be a fourth category of jobs that don't exist today are just nascent that will grow. And already we see that there are 880,000 openings for data scientists and other AI related positions right now to try to hire an LLM expert, it'll cost you a fortune and they're not around. So the job market, the workforce landscape is going to change so dramatically. And then universities will have to change dramatically to figure out where their place and role is in that.

Shauna Cox (13:07):Absolutely. And it's that whole part of adapting, but also being responsive at the same time because with technology it's rapidly evolving and you have to change and adapt and respond with those times because as you mentioned, universities often don't go at that baseline.

Paul LeBlanc (13:27):And there's a bigger existential shift. I think Shauna, and I'm giving a talk at Trinity College next week in Dublin, and the title of the talk is education at the Age of AI Learning to be a Better Human. Because I think in some ways what we may actually be talking about is a shift away from knowledge based education to ontologically based education, which is what is your role in a world where maybe humans don't have to work or maybe humans will find their value in doing distinctly human work. And right now, distinctly human work doesn't get paid very well. If you think about early childhood educators, teachers, generally social workers, mental health workers, I keep arguing that we don't have an issue with having enough work for humans to do. If AI takes over knowledge work, we just have to pay well for it and value it.

(14:22):But the reality is we should flood our K 12 schools with great teachers, social workers, coaches and staff. We should rebuild a mental healthcare system in the US that's completely decimated. We need to fix a broken criminal justice system. We need to flood our inner cities with social workers and addiction treatment and support for the homeless, which is a massive problem. Those are all jobs that AI can't do. Those are all jobs that are distinctly human. And I think what we're going to need to see is because humans have to work, we don't do well when we just have a lot of vital time. Honestly, all those jobs are incredibly rewarding, meaningful, and people would do them in much greater numbers if they paid well. Absolutely. I have to think the economics of the workforce.

Shauna Cox (15:15):Absolutely. And I just want to shift gears a little bit here. Reflecting back on your time at SNHU, what are some of the things that you're most proud of?

Paul LeBlanc (15:26):I think anytime that I think over the 20 years where we were able to transform the lives of learners who were cut out of, are left behind by the incumbent system of higher ed, those are moments that are deeply satisfying and meaningful. So we do work with refugees in Africa and the Middle East. I was just in Kenya in Rwanda for graduation ceremonies. The refugee problem in the world right now is unprecedented. There are 110 million displaced people, about 75 million displaced out of their home countries. So refugees as we channeled, but there's a lot of internal displacement that occurs. And we had graduation ceremonies that were just joyous. And some of our graduates in Kenya, for example, have never known life outside the camp. They've been in the Kakuma camp, which is the largest refugee camp in Africa. It's in a very tough place, have been there.

(16:25):And when we bust them down to Nairobi for the ceremony, it was, it's hard to describe the joy and pride that they felt. And I just saw a report that 95% of those graduates now have meaningful life affirming work. It changed their life In Rwanda where the country allows refugees freedom of movement, 96% of our refugee learners have jobs before they graduate, like at graduation, and they immediately move out of the camp, they move their families out of the camp, they start to have a good life. Again, it's profound. But we do work with homeless youth and LA County and kids who have time to the foster care system through one of our partnerships at graduation. Back in May, there was a great grandmother, she was in her early sixties, so she started young, but she's a truck driver, a long distance truck driver, and she bragged that she earned her degree in 48 states because she was driving cross country.

(17:23):But when she parked the truck at night, she'd get a wifi signal, she'd park close to a building and open up her laptop and then she'd become a student. And when at graduation, which is the best day of the year, is when I get to hear those stories and they are incredibly moving. So that's what I'm most proud of. There's another sort of other aspect that again sort of focuses on people, which is we are the only university in the United States to be on the best colleges to work for list every year since it was created. And I'm really proud of that because I operate with a fundamental belief that if we take really, really good care of our people, they'll take really, really good care of our students. And I think that has been borne out. So those are probably the things that I'm most proud of, but they really have to do with people and relationship and being a good human.

Shauna Cox (18:13):Absolutely. You have clearly years of experience and have seen so many different things and have gone through so many different things and watched higher ed evolve. So what are some of the key lessons that you have learned that would benefit other higher ed leaders?

Paul LeBlanc (18:32):I think one of the things that's changing in our industry is that we have seen the erosion of faith and support in institutions across the society. And we've certainly seen that with a precipitous fall in support and respect for higher ed. University presidents used to be able to lead by dint of their academic pedigree, the title, your university president that used to get a certain kind of innate respect. And you could lead from that place. You could lead from your smarts. I actually think the challenge today is to lead from your heart. It requires a different leadership. It's relational leadership, others, this is a growing recognition. There are a couple of books I think of Humano, for example, which talks about empowering people and relational leadership, or the book Unleashed, which is written by the two women that was brought into Uber when that culture blew up.

(19:29):They were both, Francis Fry is at Harvard Business School and she writes about the job of leadership now is to create leaders and it's about relationships with people. The army has this saying that they've recognized this for a long time, that your soldiers won't care until they know that you care. And I think university leaders have to be authentic, they have to be vulnerable, they have to know their people, and their people need to feel like they know them. They have to feel that, oh, my leader. I think the leadership has changed. And in a world where people don't trust institutions, they're looking for care and they're looking for authenticity. And I think throwing on your robes and looking fancy at the front of the auditorium doesn't cut it anymore or weighing in as the university president. And we've seen that, right? You've seen the attacks on presidents and Congress recently probably know presidents of Harvard and Penn losing their jobs.

(20:32):And in some ways, higher ed is lost its way a little bit. It's become too much about status, fancy buildings, size of endowment. Did your football team play on Saturday? Did it win? It's like none of that has to do with transforming the lives of students. It's got to do with a lot of other stuff. So that sounds very pedantic. I don't mean it to be, but I do think I wrote my book Broken in 2022, and the last chapter is about leadership. And I think I wrestled with this was awkward to write about it because people don't use the word love in talking about leadership, but I wrote about love. People have to feel like you love them. And by love I mean that they matter to you, that you give them your time, that you know them, that you are part of improving their lives. That's what love, it's a version of love that is really powerful. Yeah,

Shauna Cox (21:23):Absolutely. Well Paul, those are all the questions that we have for you. But before we let you go, we have to know since we've made the end of the podcast, very food-based, now you're based in Manchester, New Hampshire, and what the people would love to know is if they're going to Manchester, where would you recommend them to have a bite?

Paul LeBlanc (21:58):So I have a little bit of a reputation that's new about being a sneakerhead. So it's like asking me, which is your favorite pair of sneakers, what kind of depends on the day and the mood and what I'm wearing, your favorite restaurant, sort of the first response is always, well, it depends. There are for just an amazing quality of food and a fancy setting, either a fancy work dinner or important event. I would say the Handover Street Chophouse is great if I'm the mood for a raucous loud, kind of lively pizza salad place. There's another other options on town. But my favorite Go-to place, I'm becking your question from a moment. A tiny, tiny little cocktail bar called Industry East. It only has I think four tables in the bar itself. It's got a limited food menu, but the food's great, the cocktails are great and it feels like cheers when you walk in, everyone knows you. It feels like home. It's cozy and on a winter night to duck into Industry East is one of my wife and I, one of our favorite things. And by the way, everyone looks like a 20-year-old hipster. And then we look like the honorary grandparents who have walked in. But the staff loves us and gives us hugs and we don't care. We're like, we can be the honorary grandparents. That's so funny. It's a great place if you come to Manchester. But there are many, many

Shauna Cox (23:21):Amazing, I love that the vibe sounds fantastic. And now I have the Cheers theme song stuck in my head.

Paul LeBlanc (23:29):There you go. Sorry. You'll have that with you the rest of the day, Shauna. Absolutely. My apologies.

Shauna Cox (23:34):Well, Paul, it was great chatting with you. And thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Paul LeBlanc (23:39):It was a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. 

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