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Southern New Hampshire University is restructuring its work force partnerships division, College for America, to prepare for a massive influx of new students in competency-based education programs. Part of that restructuring means moving its student advising team under one roof.

SNHU earlier this month sent termination notices to 87 student support staffers at College for America -- most of them working remotely as part-timers. The university said it plans to hire an unspecified number full-time employees in their place and ultimately increase the size of its in-house advising staff to beyond the more than 300 it employs today (a figure that includes employees advising students in the university’s regular online programs).

“Over past few months, we have been reviewing our structure and developing strategies to deliver scalable competency-based degree programs,” Libby May, senior vice president of external affairs and communications, said in an email. “This restructuring will move us into a full-time student support model, and ultimately improve the access to student supports and outcomes.”

Paul LeBlanc, president of SNHU, said in an interview that College for America has relied heavily on part-time staffers, or “learning coaches,” during the division’s “proof of concept” phase. That structure has given the university some flexibility, he said.

“So much was unknown at the time,” LeBlanc said. “If we were going to have to contract, it would be easier to do it with part-time people than full-time people. Now that we feel like we’ve hit this cadence, we would really like to convert to full-time.”

Instead of contracting, SNHU is preparing itself for growth as many of College for America’s roughly 100 corporate partnerships mature past the pilot stage. The division now has about 6,000 students and expects to nearly double that -- adding 5,000 students -- next fiscal year. The university’s five-year goal is 50,000 students, LeBlanc said.

One of the coaches who was laid off said in an email to Inside Higher Ed that she is worried that the quality of student advising at SNHU will suffer by moving from coaches (“trained professionals with experience in motivating and helping others succeed in their learning and development,” in university parlance) to advisers (“a liaison with faculty, providing you with tools and resources to assist you in your course work and serving as your first line of contact with whatever you need”).

The coach spoke on condition of anonymity, as she is still employed by the university for a few more days.

“My gut tells me that other universities who are starting [competency-based education] models and building student supports will look at [SNHU] and think it is the best way,” the coach wrote. “I am here to say that it isn’t. I have worked with our CBE students for over two years and am getting my doctorate in higher education and adult learning. I know a thing or two about what students need. They do not need an adviser; they need a coach.”

LeBlanc said the university feels that the advising model is “a bit stronger.” While the university is bringing all of its student support services together, College for America will continue to have its own dedicated team of advisers, he said.

The move to limit remote work resembles how technology companies such as IBM and Yahoo in recent years have cut back on or even eliminated work-from-home options, arguing that requiring employees to report to the office improves cooperation and workplace culture. Some tech giants -- Apple, Facebook and Google among them -- have even designed lavish campuses packed with features and services to keep employees at work.

But the move also has its downsides, LeBlanc acknowledged. With remote employees, the university is better equipped to serve students in other time zones. “Here [in New Hampshire] our advisers and staff work until midnight,” he said. “But when they shut off the lights, that’s just nine o’clock on the West Coast.”

SNHU is debating whether to establish a second center for full-time advisers or a smaller center with part-time advisers on the West Coast, but has yet to make a decision, LeBlanc said.

Still, LeBlanc said, “our bias is toward having everyone working together.” He added that such a structure encourages employees to work in teams and talk among one another about topics ranging from the operational to the goofy. “It’s the serendipity, the on-the-fly kind of stuff,” he said.

The coach said SNHU is taking “a huge step backward” by terminating its remote employees. “If I knew I was working for a university that compared themselves to Yahoo, I never would have signed that contract,” she said.

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