Paul J. LeBlanc remembers the day, about a decade ago, when a public research university in New England announced that it was starting an online M.B.A. Southern New Hampshire University, where LeBlanc is president, had just rolled out its own ambitious online program and started its rise from undistinguished private institution with a few thousand students to today’s online-education juggernaut with more than 92,000 undergraduates enrolled.
LeBlanc found the prospect of such an august competitor bracing — until he heard a radio ad touting the new program. The ad suggested that those interested in the program come to an open house.
“You have an online program, but people have to go to your campus to get information and register?” he asks, still sounding incredulous. And, sure enough, “They’ve never been competition.”
At a time when many colleges are struggling with shrinking enrollment and tighter budgets, Southern New Hampshire is thriving on a grand scale, and it’s not alone. Liberty, Grand Canyon, and Western Governors Universities, along with a few other nonprofit institutions, have built huge online enrollments and national brands in recent years by subverting many of traditional higher education’s hallmarks. Western Governors has 88,585 undergraduates, according to U.S. Education Department data, more than the top 14 universities in the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings combined.