A President's Reflections

Funding the Dream & Living Our Mission

Posted on March 7, 2018

We announced on March 1 a new initiative to educate 1,000 DACA recipients across the country using our affordable, high quality, competency-based degree program, College for America. The initiative came about when Ed Shapiro, a generous supporter of some of our work with refugees, asked what we might do for DREAMers, the name given to undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as children.

Since the announcement, we have received a flood of support and positive messages. Markedly small in number, we have also received some negative comments. Many of them suggest that those posting do not understand DACA or the initiative we have launched, so I want to take some time to address the comments and questions.

What is DACA?

DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an immigration policy that allowed children who entered the U.S. as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit.

To become DACA recipients, these children were vetted to make sure they had no criminal record, posed no threat to national security, and had completed school or military service. In return, they were allowed to live in the U.S. for two years and became eligible to work, drive, and enroll in college. Currently, DACA has not been renewed, and Congress and the courts are trying to sort through its future, leaving roughly 700,000 DACA recipients under threat of deportation. This is the current impasse in Washington. Courts have allowed DACA to continue and the Supreme Court has recently refused to take it up, leaving the court orders in force. For now, DACA recipients may remain and they are still residing in the U.S. legally.

Why is SNHU launching this initiative?

We often say that we serve the underserved or those for whom college is not a guarantee. Our students work hard – no one is handing them anything in life – and they need the kinds of programs we offer because they work best for them. I like to think we are the most innovative university in the U.S. and that innovation mostly centers on ways to increase access to education, by providing affordable pathways to a high-quality degrees. For roughly 3,000 of our students, living on campus and having the traditional “coming of age” experience of residential undergraduate life is the right choice. We have the SNHU Advantage Program for young people who, for a variety of reasons, can’t live on campus and need a lower cost alternative that allows them to work in the afternoons or care for family. For roughly 90,000 students, mostly adults juggling work and family, our online program works best. For about 5,000 students, our self-paced, project-based competency education (CBE) program is the best option.

It is this last program that we are using with refugee students in Rwanda, Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa (and later in 2018 Lebanon), because the combination of very low cost puts it within reach (for people often living on less than 50 cents per day), while the project-based learning and on-the-ground wrap around support of trusted partners ensures quality and success. We use that same model in the US to work with charter schools to serve marginalized youth – often very poor – in cities like LA, Boston, Providence, and others.

DACA students have no access to federal financial aid and get limited to no state-based aid in many states. They often mirror the profile of the students we serve with our charter school partners: very poor, mostly non-white, often with responsibilities to support their families, low income students juggling work and families, sometimes parents themselves. But unlike every other student we serve, aside from our refugee students, they do not have the same access to loans and financial aid. This is why Ed Shapiro made a seven-figure gift to us to launch the program and was then joined by TheDream.US (a foundation created by former Washington Post owner Don Graham) to serve DACA students. Without someone’s help, these young people have no access to higher education.

So, to go back to the question: we launched our initiative because it is very much our mission to serve the underserved (I sometimes call SNHU “Underdog U”), because we strive to increase access to higher education, and because we had donors who were willing to fund the effort, and because we are trying to level the playing field just a little bit for DACA students.

Are we making a political statement?

Absolutely not. In fact, we have assiduously avoided political commentary and politely rejected offers from various politicians to lend their support. The plight of DREAMers has been too much politicized in my view. We just want to do what we do for thousands of others every day: serve students and help transform lives.

The Criticisms

I want to take up some of the criticism we have seen in social media. I want to focus on those that genuinely feel aggrieved in our announcement of the initiative and who often fall into one of two categories:

  • “I am still paying the loans I took out for college, why do they get it for free and I don’t?”
  • “What are you doing for all the poor, hard-working families and students that are not DACA?”

For the first category, there are two primary responses here. First and easiest is that we had donors who said they wanted to pay for the tuition of DACA recipients. Ed, Don, and the others who have stepped forward feel passionate about the needs of young people they see being deprived of the aid available to everyone else.

There are all sorts of scholarships created by individuals that have a special group of students in mind or a specific idea they want to fund. For example, my wife, Pat, and I feel that travel is one of the most powerfully transforming educational experiences and we realize that poor students often do not have the resources to do things like study abroad, so we created a scholarship fund to help really poor SNHU students travel. In this case, we have donors who want to offer these full scholarships. That’s how they are getting their education for free.

The second response is to remind everyone that these students will be in our very low cost CBE program. Almost no one who enrolls in that program leaves with debt of any kind (and those who do have very small amounts of debt). In contrast, if you are a graduate of a higher priced program – say the four-year, residential program; our highest cost program – you chose a program that costs more. Few students can graduate from it without some debt.

I worry about student debt and think about this issue a lot. In fact, I’ve actively tried to steer students and families away from SNHU when I thought they were taking on too much financial burden. One such exchange with a parent actually became a national story, When a Student’s First-Choice College Is Out of Financial Reach.

Sometimes we can’t make the math work and/or the student wants one of our options that is simply not within financial reach, no matter their sacrifice and our aid. We know how hard our students work and the sacrifices their families make, and while a college degree pays for itself many times over (the research is absolutely clear on this), we will keep working to find ways to make it more affordable and within reach.

The second question regarding what we do for poor, hard-working students and their families is easy. The answer is a lot. Here are just a few examples:

  • We have not raised tuition for our online programs since 2013.
  • We had no tuition increase in our traditional campus program this year and when we have had them in the past, they were far less than our peers.
  • We give out more than $50m in institutional aid every year.
  • We have created new, lower cost program options of the kind mentioned earlier.
  • For the past 5 years, we have teamed up with a military-focused non-profit organization to provide full scholarships to military spouses to complete their degrees, and we recently expanded all of our military benefits to include reservists and national guard members.
  • We gave up our commission on textbooks sales because we worried that textbook costs were climbing too high and we wanted the leverage to negotiate lower prices for our students. As a result, we’ve reduced the typical cost of textbooks from upwards of $200 per course to below $100.
  • During now multiple federal budget sequestrations, we allowed our military students to continue for free if their GI Bill funds were tied up.
  • We work hard to leverage employer tuition benefits and have a deferred tuition payment program in place that allows students to pay when their employer has paid them.

We have also instituted robust financial counseling tools to educate our students on the nature of educational debt and urged them to borrow only what they absolutely need. If someone enrolls in our online degree program with no credits, she can graduate with a full four-year bachelor’s degree for roughly $40,000, or $1,000 a course. It’s hard to get much more affordable than that, but our CBE program cuts that cost by another 50%. Few institutions in the in the U.S. are as committed to affordability as is SNHU.

The Big Picture
I’m an immigrant. My family came from a dirt poor and hard scrabble farming village in the Maritimes of Canada and my parents worked really hard. They paid taxes, saved up and bought a house, and remained to the end deeply appreciative of what the United States made possible for them. It was access to affordable higher education that then changed the trajectory of my life and made possible for my daughters a world their grandparents could hardly conceive.

I hold as an absolute conviction that talent is universally distributed, but opportunity is not. In the population of the students we seek to serve, including DACA students, is the next scientist, tech star, business success, designer, athlete, start-up genius, or governor (and movie star). But we have to give them an opportunity and we have to give them hope. That’s what we do at SNHU and that’s why we readily accepted the support of our donors and launched the DACA initiative. As I tell our people all the time, never apologize for doing the right thing for students in need.


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