SNHU Continues Pursuit of Online Learning in China (Boston Globe)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008
SNHU Communications Office

BEIJING - Some elite American universities come to China to scout the smartest students possible. Other lesser known schools, particularly small private colleges around New England, arrive here with a far different motive: profit.

Which explains why Paul LeBlanc, president of tiny Southern New Hampshire University, flew 7,700 miles from Manchester last month as part of his years-long campaign to offer American online degrees to Chinese universities. He hugged a Chinese education official near a concrete statue of Mao. He took yet another tour of Beijing Sports University. They shared a song-filled Peking duck dinner to celebrate LeBlanc's birthday.

Success at reaching a partnership, LeBlanc believes, would lead to a multimillion-dollar windfall to his school.

Officials from second-tier New England schools, seeking to counter a projected decline in the number of college-aged American students, are swooping into China with the mindset of Fortune 500 CEOs looking to tap into the vast Chinese market.

"We see China as an opportunity to be an early player in what stands to be a very, very large market," LeBlanc said. "I see this bubbling up all sorts of things."

When they look here, what they see are 10 million graduating high school students, only about half of whom will be accepted into a national university system that has been unable to keep up with growing demand. The other 5 million are fair game, as well as the students enrolled in China's version of community colleges. Then there are the graduate students.

So local academicians, playing on New England's reputation as the nexus of American higher education, are carving out a new tuition stream by establishing foreign outposts and marketing their brands - Lasell, Northeastern, Babson, Clark, Cambridge College - in money-making ventures across China.

They're trying to cement partnerships with Chinese universities to grant American degrees with little time, if any, spent in the United States. In addition to recruiting Chinese students to their faraway campuses, some are putting together highly profitable online courses that Chinese students can take in their own homes.

All with one key requirement for prospective students: "As long as they can pay," said Michael Alexander, president of Lasell College in Newton, who made his first exploratory trip to China last month.

"Hopefully," he said, "they pay the full freight."

In the calculus of American educators, virtually everyone in China can benefit from their involvement. Parents in the burgeoning middle class can take pride in sending their children to New England for college. Students who didn't score high enough on a national college entrance exam to earn a spot in a Chinese university can take solace in an American education. Chinese universities, under pressure to serve more students, can partner with American schools to offer new degrees and academic programs, even profiting themselves from the affiliations.

Lasell is in the early stages of forming a joint academic program with a Chinese technical college that will be taught in English by Lasell faculty and by Chinese faculty in China. After studying for three years in China, students with high grades, English skills, and financial resources will finish their bachelor's degrees at Lasell.

Alexander said his university will pocket between 10 and 40 percent of the tuition for the three years of study in China, and the full tuition once students come to the United States.

Another option for Chinese students: Those who earn the equivalent of an associate's degree in China can transfer to Lasell and complete their bachelor's in two years.

"For small colleges like us, our partnerships here can be a hedge when competing for American students becomes more difficult," Alexander said.

Other tuition-dependent colleges with negligible endowments are using similar models to bring Chinese students - and their tuition payments - to New England.

Cambridge College and Clark University in Worcester are double-teaming with Shandong University of Science and Technology to offer Chinese students American bachelor's and master's degrees.

After three years studying business management at Shandong, the students would transfer to Cambridge for a year to complete a bachelor's degree and earn a Cambridge College diploma, said James Lee, the school's undergraduate dean who is in China this week to put the finishing touches on the partnership.

Those students then stay on another year to finish a master's degree at Clark University, said Max Hess, assistant dean and director of graduate programs at Clark. If all goes well, Clark plans to open a branch campus in Shandong in a few years.

Northeastern University, which also sent a delegation to China last month, hopes next summer to bring its first group of Chinese students, drawn from a consortium of about 20 Chinese colleges. They would spend 18 months to two years in Boston completing their bachelor's degrees.

Northeastern is also tapping students in the virtual realm, through a new online graduate program for Chinese food and drug regulators.

The courtship of Chinese universities, though, can be a long and tedious effort and subject to the whims of the Chinese Ministry of Education, which has been known to abruptly change contract terms at the 11th hour.

"Everybody goes over there with a huge amount of enthusiasm, but it's sort of two steps forward, one step back," said LeBlanc, who began pitching Southern New Hampshire University to Chinese officials two years ago. US universities must be patient, he said, and take the time to cultivate relationships, or guanxi in Chinese.

Even without a formalized partnership, LeBlanc's school has launched a recruiting effort that has paid dividends. Southern New Hampshire has seen its enrollment of Chinese students increase from 36 in 2005 to 236 today. The overall student body numbers 4,100.

Now LeBlanc wants to market Southern New Hampshire's online graduate degrees in business, hospitality, and sports management to students in a dozen Chinese universities and enroll hundreds, potentially thousands, more.

The Chinese students would be taught by mostly American professors from a so-called boxed curriculum designed by experts in the subject to ensure consistent quality. They'd work from home, work, or communal spaces planned by local universities so students won't feel isolated. In anticipation of a growing online business, Southern New Hampshire has already opened an office in Beijing's Haidian district near Beijing Sports and other universities, a sixth-floor home base where students could come for live help or team up on projects.

Pan Kai, a 21-year-old engineering major, said he is ready to sign up to pursue an online MBA from Southern New Hampshire while working next year. "Online is cheaper, it's fast, it's efficient," he said.

And lucrative. LeBlanc hopes that students, paying $900 course (discounted from the US price of $1,400), will generate $4 million to $6 million annually after five years. But those sorts of numbers, he said, will require formal partnerships with established Chinese universities.

During his meeting last month with the president of Beijing Sports University, LeBlanc relaxed on a tan leather couch next to Hua Yang, who puffed on a cigarette in the sitting area adjoining the university's private banquet room. Yang reiterated his commitment to the partnership.

"The relationship with Southern New Hampshire will give Chinese students an edge," Yang said through an interpreter. "This form of learning will be very big in the future in China."

But the concept of online-learning is still unfamiliar to many Chinese parents. And a formal agreement would take time. Yang abruptly stood up and ushered LeBlanc and his colleagues into the dining room.

They would down glasses of merlot. Gifts of porcelain and crystal would be exchanged. The president's wife would place a paper crown on LeBlanc's head as he blew out candles and the massive round table sang "Happy Birthday."

And then the presidents would bid adieu, until next spring.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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