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SNHU Online Learning Program Dispenses With Grades And Credit Hours

Flikr Creative Commons / rex libris

Online courses in higher education have been around for decades. Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester has been offering online courses since 1996.

Now the university is piloting a new online model — one that dispenses with courses, grades and credit hours. College for America is a low-cost, nontraditional approach that's getting a lot of attention. And it may be the first of its kind to get federal approval by the Department of Education.

Cynthia Doyon is a 53 year-old single mom, who is an administrator at Anthem Blue Cross in Manchester, where she’s worked for the last twelve years.

Doyon is about to go back to college, something she hasn’t considered for a long time.

I got married at 20 and was short of getting my degree. Getting married at such a young age and then having children and then working for the family restaurant of my ex-husband and etcetera I never got a chance to finish it. I’m hoping to finally get back into my steps and do something for myself.

Doyan is one of 40 employees at Anthem who volunteered to participate in a pilot for an online associate's degree from SNHU.

The students don’t take courses. Instead, they complete online activities like writing a paragraph and progress to more complex tasks like creating a marketing plan. For employees like Doyan, the program — called College for America — is a chance to improve basic skills.

For me, I have to spell check everything. I’m poor at grammar. When you’re young, you don’t think about how important it is in your life until you’re in the position you’re in. I have to work really hard at doing letters and that.

Patricia Shields, who directs human resources for Anthem in the northeast, says there is a need for increasing skill. She says their associates will be better equipped to meet that need with the degree behind them.

We still see people coming out of college who can’t write a business letter, or can’t write well.

Despite high unemployment, many companies can’t fill jobs with the right people.

According to a recent McKinsey report , advanced economies around the world will face a shortfall of as many as 40 million college-educated workers by the year 2020.

When you consider that many people can’t afford college, the outlook for finding well-trained employees is grim.

But Kris Clerkin, who runs College for America, is optimistic.

She says this program educates employees and then provides proof of what they’ve learned.

The idea was to develop a new model that would be very low cost to help people develop real skills. Our target is that we would charge no more than 2500 dollars a year or a five thousand dollar degree.

What’s different is that students aren’t assigned classes and don’t receive credits.

We’ve taken the courses that typically go into an associates program and developed 120 competencies. There are approximately seventy tasks in three levels. Levels 1, 2 and 3. The students will develop a path. And they’ll tackle this at their own pace and in their own way.

Clerkin says students don’t study in isolation. They get help from coaches through the phone or Skype. And evaluators assess when students can move on to the next level.

But there’s no face-to-face interaction with professors for these students, and many of them have struggled with academics in the past. 

Other colleges, mostly in the for-profit sector, have used alternative models like this one. But it remains largely untested territory in higher education.

SNHU meets with Department of Education officials in January.  It wants to become the first school to seek federal financial aid for its students—without translating student performance to credit hours. 

And then SNHU  plans to grow the program to 500 students by September.  The school is also talking to other large employers—Federal Express, ConAgra- as well as corporations in other countries.

Their goal is to remove credit hours as a measure of achievement — so policy makers value actual learning over seat time.