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May 13, 2014

Paul LeBlanc is the president of Southern New Hampshire University (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH).

How low can college sticker prices go? Southern New Hampshire University announced this month it will offer the country's first fully-accredited $10,000 bachelor's degree online.

The Manchester-based university is partnering with more than 50 employers - from Blue Cross Blue Shield to McDonald's - to offer degrees aimed at working adults.

"Our current higher education wasn't built for the modern age," said Julian Alssid, the chief workforce strategist at Southern New Hampshire University. (That's right, today, non-profit colleges have workforce strategists.)

Alssid says the program is designed for busy working adults whose employers will help subsidize the cost. It's project-based, so no traditional courses, no lectures.

"There was a day when there was a kind of hard divide between the academic and vocational worlds," Alssid said. "What we're seeing now is that most jobs require people that have an academic proficiency and can actually do something."

For the past few years, SNHU has been experimenting with self-paced online associate degrees. Students earn competencies, like problem solving and critical thinking, instead of credit hours, explains SNHU president Paul LeBlanc.

"The thing is that what [credit hours] are really best at is telling you how long somebody sat but it's not good at telling you what they actually learned," LeBlanc said. "So what we've done at competency-based education is we've flipped that -- the learning is non negotiable, but the timing is highly variable."

Of course, this comes as families are growing increasingly price-conscious, and more and more business leaders say online college degrees provide high-quality education. A Northeastern University poll released this month finds 52 percent of business leaders think online learning will be just as recognized among employers as traditional college degrees in the next five to seven years.

Back in 2010, the idea of the so-called "$10k B.A." became a kind of arms-race for schools after Harvard dropout Bill Gates made an off-hand comment at a conference.

"The tuition is, say, $50,000 a year so over four years—a $200,000 education—that is increasingly hard to get because there’s less money for it because it’s not there, and we’re trying to provide it to every kid who wants it," Gates said at the time. "And only technology can bring that down, not just to $20,000 but to $2,000."

Since then, some colleges took the idea of $2,000 dollar tuition and multiplied it by five -- the average number of years it takes a student to earn a bachelor's degree. Mark Nemec, CEO of the higher education research firm Eduventures, thinks the 10k B.A. is part of a larger movement that is transforming what it means to be a student. But, Nemec says, that transformation isn't a complete overhaul.

"It would be a mistake to assume that it's going to replace the traditional four-year bachelors degree," said Nemec.

Nemec points out that competency-based education has been around since the 1970s. What's different now, though, is that higher education is rethinking how it issues credits and certificates.

"The cost of the degree is not the issue. It's the value of that degree. And that value is going to be judged by a number of constituencies: the students themselves, the employer, but also, even broader, society at large," said Nemec.

While recent online initiatives are a lot cheaper for students, Nemec says that's because employers and colleges are picking up most of the tab, the question is, whether they'll continue to. SNHU's $10,000 degrees in health care management and communications were approved last week by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

confronting cost, new business models, 10kBA, university of southern new hampshire

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