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Attracting, and keeping, online students

I have heard university presidents dedicate new buildings, quote Plato, and praise generous benefactors.

But before Monday, I had never heard a university president gush about predictive analytics and customer relationship management software. Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, was scrutinizing a spreadsheet in the cubicle of Sharon Rogge, his assistant vice president of student reporting and analysis.

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When students sign up for one of SNHU’s online courses, the school tracks data such as how often they log in and how frequently they post messages. “When we see that people are becoming less engaged, or at risk of dropping out, one of our advisers can give them a call or send a message,” says LeBlanc.

Welcome to the data-driven world of online education, where most students never play beer pong together or drop by a professor’s office for a chat. But due to the convenience and lower cost of taking courses online — perhaps to finish a degree or burnish a résumé — about 7 million people in the United States are enrolled in at least one online course, according to the Babson Survey Research Group.

That represents about one-third of all students in higher education. And few universities have been surfing the face of this wave like SNHU, founded in 1932 as an accounting and secretarial school.

While schools like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford have attracted lots of attention for putting courses online, SNHU has already reached and passed two tipping points. It serves far more students over the Internet (about 35,000 this year) than it does on its campus along the Merrimack River (3,800), and generates more revenues online that it does from running a “traditional” college. Many other schools, such as Berklee College of Music, are just getting started; Berklee will offer its first online bachelor’s degrees this fall.

LeBlanc uses the word “disruption” often, but he doesn’t see the demise of the traditional college experience that follows high school. That’s an immersive learning experience and rite of passage for many teens entering adulthood. But adults in the workforce who see the benefit in getting a degree — or earning an advanced degree — represent a huge opportunity.

For students, it’s a confusing landscape, with a mix of for-profit schools like University of Phoenix, and offerings from traditional nonprofits like Northeastern University, Berklee, or SNHU. And even more schools are entering the fray, observes Robert Lytle, coleader of the education practice at the Parthenon Group, a Boston consulting firm.

“When you can go visit a campus of a traditional college, you can go into a classroom, and get a lot of impressions of whether it’s the school for you,” Lytle says, but forming impressions online can be more difficult.

Whether the faculty comprises full-time instructors or part-time adjuncts who still work in industry can be an important factor for students, Lytle says. Pricing, too. But Lytle says, “The number-one job for these programs is to graduate students, and it may be that a more expensive option helps you get there.”

LeBlanc says students tend to consider cost first, followed by how long it takes to get a degree, and convenience. For that reason, he says, SNHU staffers will do things like track down a prospective student’s previous college transcripts. “We focus on the fact that people are pursuing online learning in the midst of everything else they do in their busy lives,” he says.

Preventing students from dropping out is a major area of focus — and one reason for all that data analysis. (Students who register closer to a course’s start date, SNHU has found, are more likely to drop out.) SNHU advisers have learned to steer students from more challenging courses when they initially enroll; building confidence is important, says Gregory Fowler, the chief academic officer for SNHU’s online courses.

“I liken it to a plane taking off,” Fowler says. “They need to get some momentum before they can get off the ground and up to cruising altitude.”

In the world of online education, instructors can be located anywhere; SNHU has more than 100 faculty in Texas, Florida, and California, and other states. And instructors’ engagement with students is monitored just as closely as the student’s engagement with the course. Fowler says the best online instructors not only respond to student questions quickly, but give specific feedback that “clearly indicates they’ve read what the student is doing.”

SNHU is incubating an even more radical concept than online courses, called College for America. It’s targeted to employers who want to help front-line employees earn associate degrees.

In this program, students’ progress is based on completing projects, like writing a strategic plan, as opposed to spending a “semester” in an online class. LeBlanc says that nearly 20 students have completed an associate degree in a year that way, at a price of about $2,500 each. Projects completed in College for America can be tied to LinkedIn profiles.

“It’s evidence of what they’ve done,” LeBlanc says, “as opposed to a B in sociology. “

We shouldn’t forget that behind the boom in online learning are students earning degrees and taking courses who wouldn’t have otherwise. And that’s fantastic. This Saturday, one of SNHU’s online students will travel to New Hampshire for the first time to don a cap and gown and accept his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.

Mervyn Ripley, a sergeant major in the Army who served in Bosnia and Iraq, says he’d bring a sandwich to work and focus on classes during lunchtime. He retires from the Army next year, at 50. His next step: probably a master’s in public administration. “Not bad,” he says, “for a kid who got thrown out of high school 30-plus years ago.”

Not bad.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.

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