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Southern New Hampshire University

Students at Pennsylvania’s 14 public community colleges can now easily pursue an online degree at Southern New Hampshire University, thanks to a new credit-transfer pathway.

An articulation agreement announced Wednesday will enable students to transfer up to 45 credits toward an associate’s degree -- which requires a total of 60 credits -- or up to 90 credits toward a 120-credit bachelor’s degree at SNHU. Pennsylvania students transferring to SNHU will receive a 10 percent discount on their tuition.

All community college students transferring to SNHU are offered a 10 percent discount, a SNHU spokeswoman said. But SNHU's degrees will nonetheless undercut ​most universities in Pennsylvania on price. At $288 per credit, including the 10 percent discount, SNHU is significantly cheaper than Pennsylvania State University's World Campus, which charges transfer students upwards of $576 per credit.

The credit-transfer agreement could put pressure on Pennsylvania’s four-year public institutions to lower their prices. Public universities in Pennsylvania are some of the most expensive in the nation, charging nearly twice the U.S. average of $6,368 for tuition and fees in 2019. Other states could soon feel the same pressure, as SNHU hopes to reach similar deals across the U.S. -- expanding the institution's impressive national reach. SNHU currently enrolls more than 130,000 students online.

Statewide agreements are unusual, as such deals are usually struck between a single community college and a university on a program-by-program basis, said Russell Poulin, director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, which focuses on technology-enhanced learning in higher ed.

“This is kind of a wake-up call for Pennsylvania’s public institutions,” said Poulin. “They may be struggling, but they need to make sure they’re meeting the needs of the state.”

Poulin predicts that the statewide agreements could be the first of many not just for SNHU, but other large online institutions operating at a national level.

“In some states four-year institutions are not always willing to transfer credit from community colleges,” he said. “If there’s a smoother path being offered by SNHU or other online institutions, that would be very attractive to students.”

The statewide deal is the third of its kind for SNHU. The online behemoth also has partnerships with community college systems in Kentucky and Massachusetts. Melanie Plourde, a SNHU spokeswoman, said the university will be pursuing more statewide partners. ​

Western Governors University, another large online nonprofit institution, also has a strategy for partnering with community colleges at the state level. WGU has satellite branches in eight states. All but two of these state affiliates have articulation agreements with their state's community college system, or with all the individual community colleges in their state. Missouri has agreements with all but one state community college, and North Carolina has agreements with six community colleges and is pursuing an agreement with the community college system. Students who transfer to WGU from these colleges receive a 5 percent discount on tuition.

The movement of SNHU into markets traditionally dominated by regional players, “really illustrates the tension between the traditional and nontraditional space,” said Josh Pierce, CEO of Acadeum, a company that helps colleges share online degrees.

“Traditionally these two segments of the market would have attracted very different students; the markets were very regionalized. That’s not the case anymore,” said Pierce. “It’s becoming increasingly competitive at the margins to find students.”

State institutions may find it challenging to compete with SNHU’s pricing, Pierce said. “SNHU is competing at a national level,” he said.

SNHU’s willingness to accept up to 90 credits is a smart move for an institution focused on attracting adult students, Pierce said. It’s not uncommon for community college students to enroll in programs that don’t fit a particular degree path, sometimes racking up more credits than they need in order to achieve an associate’s degree, he said. With SNHU’s generous credit-transfer policy, those excess credits won’t go to waste if the student pursues a bachelor's degree.

Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (and an Inside Higher Ed opinion columnist), said many universities will only accept up to 60 transfer credits for bachelor’s degrees. Systemwide transfer agreements, especially ones that offer a discount on tuition, are “highly unusual and will certainly have an impact in Pennsylvania and other states where they are implemented,” he said.

Both Schroeder and Pierce agree that with unionized state institutions and budget constraints making it hard for public institutions to start charging students less, it seems unlikely that a price war will emerge in Pennsylvania. Pierce added that many state institutions are on “difficult fiscal ground” and would find it challenging to compete with SNHU on price.

On Twitter, Trace Urdan, managing director at the investment banking and consulting firm Tyton Partners, asked why a state-subsidized system would encourage students to complete their degrees at an out-of-state institution. “From the taxpayers’ perspective, this is idiotic,” he said.

According to the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, which drew up the agreement with SNHU, nearly 500 community college students transferred to SNHU in the 2018-19 academic year, and SNHU awarded 166 Pennsylvania community college students bachelor’s degrees.

“Thousands of articulation agreements are already in place with higher education partners here in Pennsylvania to help students realize their postsecondary achievement goals and we fully expect those longstanding partnerships to continue,” Elizabeth Bolden, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, said in a press release.

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, a system of state-owned institutions that does not include well-known publicly supported universities such as Penn State or the University of Pittsburgh, provided a statement, which said the system has a “rich history of community college partnerships that expand educational and career opportunities for students right here in Pennsylvania.” Of 5,885 students that transferred to Pennsylvania’s public universities in 2018, almost half, 2,795, transferred from the state’s community colleges.

Gloria Oikelome, interim vice president of academic affairs at Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania, said she welcomed the SNHU agreement. Her institution previously had credit-transfer agreements with SNHU, but they were limited to three degree programs. Now the options for students are much broader, she said.

A lot of the students at Montgomery County are working adults who would appreciate the opportunity to study fully online, she said. But online education won’t be the right fit for every student, as some will want to study on campus at an institution they know.

Oikelome doesn’t believe the SNHU agreement will necessarily result in fewer students opting to complete their degrees in state. “The more options we can offer our students, the better,” she said.

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