Dr. Paul LeBlanc: Embracing Remote Learning to Make College Attainable for All

For many of us, the word “college” conjures images of old brick buildings, studying on the quad, and lecture halls full of students fervently scribbling notes and engaging in debate.

But at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), the entire idea of college—and how we define success there—has been flipped on its head.

While four thousand students learn on-site at the school’s campus, a whopping 180,000 more study completely online. The school’s innovative approach speaks to its own leadership as much as the societal challenges, and opportunities, that we face today. As a result, SNHU has been named, among other accolades, as #12 on Fast Company magazine’s “World’s Fifty Most Innovative Companies” list.

SNHU has succeeded in part because it recognizes that many—if not most—students today face a series of modern obstacles: they work part-time or full-time jobs with erratic schedules, face financial barriers which prevent them from attending more traditional colleges, and often have no realistic path to college straight from high school.

In this episode of Deciding Factors, we welcome the President of SNHU, Dr. Paul LeBlanc, for an illuminating and wide-reaching conversation about higher ed in America, and how to make it attainable for everyone.

Paul joined SNHU twenty years ago after a seven-year stint as the President of Marlboro College in Vermont. In addition to his work creating and leading toward a new version for the university, he is the author of several best-selling books, including “Broken: How Our Social Systems Are Failing Us and How We Can Fix Them.”

Listen along as Paul explains what makes SNHU’s approach different from other models of higher ed, how it embraces data to ensure quality in the courses it offers, and how AI’s potential impact on the work force could change our expectations around higher education.


Dr. Paul J. LeBlanc has served as the President of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) since 2003 and helped the university chart a new course towards highly-accessible, remote learning. Fast Company Magazine highlighted SNHU on their “World’s Fifty Most Innovative Companies” list, placing the university at #12. Forbes Magazine has described Dr. LeBlanc as one of the “most influential people in higher education.”  

LeBlanc additionally served as Senior Policy Advisor to Under Secretary Ted Mitchell at the U.S. Department of Education, with a focus on competency-based education and novel pathways to accreditation. 

Podcast Transcript

Eric Jaffe:
We make decisions every day. While some of them are small, others can have a huge impact on our own lives and those around us. But how often do we stop to think about how we make decisions? Welcome to Deciding Factors, a podcast from GLG. I’m your host, Eric Jaffe. In each episode, I’ll talk to world-class experts and leaders in government, medicine, business and beyond, who can share their firsthand experiences and explain how they make some of their biggest decisions. We’ll give you fresh insights to help you tackle the tough decisions in your professional life.

When I say the word college, what do you picture? For many of us, college conjures images of old brick buildings, studying on the quad and lecture halls full of students fervently scribbling notes and engaging in debate. But at Southern New Hampshire University, the entire idea of college and what success at college looks like has been flipped on its head. While 4,000 students learn onsite at the school’s campus, a whopping 180,000 more study completely online. The school’s innovative approach, it has among other accolades, been named number 12 on Fast Company Magazine’s World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies Lists speaks to its own leadership as much as the societal changes and opportunities that we face today.

SNHU has succeeded in part because it recognizes that many, if not most students today face a series of modern challenges. They work part or full-time jobs with erratic schedules. They face financial barriers which prevent them from attending more traditional colleges and they often have no realistic path to college straight from high school. I’m so thrilled today to welcome the president of SNHU, Dr. Paul LeBlanc to Deciding Factors. Paul joined SNHU over 20 years ago in 2003 after a seven-year stint as the president of Marlboro College in Vermont. In addition to his work creating and leading toward a new vision for the university, he’s the author of several bestselling books, including Broken: How Our Social Systems are Failing Us and How We Can Fix Them. Listen along as Paul explains what makes SNHU’s approach different from other models of higher ed, how it embraces data to ensure quality in the courses it offers, and how AI’s potential impact on the workforce could change our expectations around higher education.

Very excited today to have on the podcast the current present of Southern New Hampshire University, Dr. Paul LeBlanc. Paul, welcome to Deciding Factors.

Dr. Paul LeBlanc:
Thank you for having me, Eric.

Eric Jaffe:
So, Paul, I thought we could start just with your background. I think it’s interesting to learn how someone can become a university president. Maybe you could talk through your journey, where you grew up, where you went to college, your career. I know you served in government and in academia, and what led you to become president of Southern New Hampshire University?

Dr. Paul LeBlanc:
Sure. Kind of a classic American dream story, right? My family immigrated when I was just three from New Brunswick, Canada, kind of what some would call French Appalachia, so hardscrabble, subsistence living farming village where the men mostly had to work away because there just wasn’t enough employment locally. So, my parents had eighth grade education, so it was a classic story of an uncle who moved to the Boston area, basically called home and said, “Hey, there’s work here.” So, half the village ended up living in Waltham, Mass, which is part of the sort of greater Boston area. And I was the youngest of five when we moved and the first in my extended family to go to college. And that was really because of a high school teacher who said, “Hey, you can go to college someday.” And I grew up when there was still tracking there, right? There was college and there was vocational and there were other things.

And that was a revelation to my mother who, she cleaned. She worked in a factory. In fact, she worked in a factory until she was in her 70s. And she also cleaned homes of wealthy people in Boston suburbs. And it was their kids who went to college, not the kids in my neighborhood. So, she really held onto that dream. And I think one of the things that we all need are people in our lives who sort of help us dream bigger dreams. And it was that teacher who helped me dream a bigger dream for myself. And in similar fashion, I went to Framingham State University, a public college, very affordable. And it was a faculty member there who said, “Where are you going to grad school?” I was like, “Grad school? Why?” I’m just like, “Going to be graduating from college.” And this was in my senior year.

And so she said, “Absolutely not. We got to get on this.” And it was very 11th hour and as I said, very, very different era where she could make a phone call to a colleague at Boston College and say, “You need to take a student of mine.” And they did. And got a TA at the last minute teaching assistantship and realized that, “Wow, I love teaching.” And really it was that teaching assistantship that put me on a track towards academia. I went on to get my PhD at UMass. My research was on technology and literacy and I was writing at the time of the advent of the computer and the first local area networks. And just as the internet was starting to take hold when early web browsers like Mosaic. And so, I really focused on what happens when a new literacy technology takes hold, what happens the way we think, what happens in society, et cetera?

I feel like I’m all the way back there again with ChatGPT and AI because we’re having all of this handwringing over what is the nature of writing and the future of writing and how should we think about this? So, maybe we want to come back to that. I was a faculty member at Springfield College. I had been doing a lot of work in this space, as I said, in technology and literacy and education and Houghton Mifflin Publishing came calling and they really wanted to take a look at my work. It was sort of relatively known at the time, had published and were doing a lot of work in that space as a young faculty member and researcher. And they made me an offer to come work for them and head up a new technology startup because all the publishers were scrambling to have an answer to this new medias, what everyone was calling it.

So, there was Hardcore New Media, Pearson New Media, and I worked for Houghton Mifflin, took a leave of absence. One year became two, became three, launched this new technology startup for them. And from there, I went to Marlborough College, and that was my first presidency at the age of 38, so I don’t know what they were thinking. I wasn’t prepared. But I was there for seven years. I had a great seven-year run and got on the radar screen from some other schools, and it was time for my next job in my next chapter. And that led me to Southern Hampshire University in 2003, almost 20 years ago. I started this job in July of 2003.

Eric Jaffe:
Some of our listeners may not be familiar with Southern New Hampshire University and may be wondering about it. As just very brief background for our listeners, you’re the largest non-profit provider of online higher education in the country. You’re clearly doing something very innovative in the education space. So, I thought maybe you could just briefly describe what is Southern New Hampshire University and how is it different from universities some of our listeners may be familiar with?

Dr. Paul LeBlanc:
Sure. So, there is a bucolic New Hampshire campus, the 4,000 students, because we’ve done well, relatively speaking financially, we’ve been able to invest in new buildings. It’s quite lovely, added new programs. So, that’s there. And that looks like college in the mythic sense of it in the American discourse. That’s 4,000 students. The other 181,000 are learning almost entirely online. But the way we often describe who we serve is we really focus on the 45% of Americans who say they would struggle to come up with $400 for an unexpected car repair or medical bill. That’s who we are focused on. So, we’re trying to really serve those who have been ill-served by the incumbent system of higher ed by and large. That is, they are adults, typical students, a 30-year-old, couple of kids, 18% of our students are veterans. They’re stuck in a job, oftentimes a dead end job. They’re trying to unlock a better economic opportunity for themselves and their families. They have tried college before.

It used to be 80% of our students came with credits from other schools, usually more than one school. So, now they’re coming back and maybe they weren’t ready, maybe life get in the way, any number of things could have happened. But now they have to come back and get that degree in order to unlock an economic opportunity. So, that’s who we serve. And it’s almost every profile of student you can imagine. We have more than 30,000 students of color larger than the largest HBCU. We have more Native American students than the largest tribal college. We increasingly have traditional age students, 30,000 17 to 22-year-olds. And that’s new. That was starting a little bit before the pandemic, but it’s really accelerated. We have a majority of women, lots of single parents. What’s grown very quickly for us is our relationships and partnerships with employers. So, we’re one of the largest partners to Walmart and to Amazon.

In both cases, we’re training frontline workers, but we also do some social impact work that includes bringing American degree programs to refugees and five countries in Africa and the Middle East, both in huge refugee camps like Kakuma Camp in Kenya, the largest refugee camp on the continent. And also to urban areas like Cape Town and Beirut. So, that’s really important work. We have a community partners work with more than 20 community partners across the US and they’re bringing degree programs in very underserved communities. So, we work with Da Vinci School in Los Angeles, and that includes bringing degree programs to homeless youth in the LA County and also youth that have timed out the foster care system. We don’t innovate for the sake of innovation. We innovate for solving the problem of too many people being left behind in a country that’s increasingly inequitable and trying to give people more affordable pathways and pathways that better serve them because they aren’t traditional 17-year-olds coming out of high school by and large. So, that’s what we’re really focused on.

Eric Jaffe:
How would you describe at the highest level, the higher education landscape for listeners? What are the right ways to bucket, if you will, or understand higher education today and where it’s going?

Dr. Paul LeBlanc:
Yeah, and it’s interesting because we often in our public discourse talk about, “This is what’s wrong with higher ed.” Or, Higher ed needs to do X.” It’s like, “Well, which higher ed?” Because there are many higher eds and they don’t all serve and do serve the same functions and do the same things. So, the most convenient and easy way, there’s some long-standing taxonomies here. So public, private, and within each of those, you have elites. So, the elites in the private side would be the Ivy League, for example or the NESCAC schools. So, people may not be familiar with that phrase, but it’s the New England Small College Athletic Conference, but it includes Williams and Amherst. It’s kind of bastions of privilege, if you will and lovely schools, wonderful schools. And on the public side, it’s typically the R1 flagship. R1 means research one, category one. So, the R1, that’s University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

And then you have kind of a second tier of institutions. And again, these will be sort of sliced and diced in different ways. But if you are at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, that’s not the flagship and everyone kind of knows that in the pecking order of the public systems. On the private side similarly, you have kind of not the Harvards and Yales, but pretty selective schools. Both those tiers are doing well, right? The reality is the elite schools and the pretty selective schools are generally okay. And then you have a great mass of institutions on the private side who are non-selective, their tuition dependent. So, they keep charging more to keep up with their rising expenses. Their business models are broken, and because they’re non-selective, they’re really getting hit hard by the demographic downturn in the US. On the public side, you have the community colleges and they educate something like 50% of all students.

And we forget that, they’re huge and they’re access institutions, right? So, they’re affordable, they’re open access. We have to always remind ourselves that for most students, they don’t provide an end point. They provide a way point. In other words, you get that two-year degree and then at some point you want to move on for the full four-year degree. And community colleges have been a bedrock, but they also have enormous challenges. And a lot of that has to do with funding. Then you have, there’s a sort of interesting group of institutions that have now come to be called in some people’s minds, mega universities, we’re often called a major university because of our size, I laugh a little bit because even as large as we are, we might have 1.5% of the total market. That’s hardly a dominating mega university the way you would use that in another industry. But 185,000 student institution is still pretty rare in the US.

So Western Governors is in that mix with us. ASU would be in that mix with us. These are large universities that are generally speaking access oriented. So, they don’t put up a higher barrier to get in. They tend to be a combination of online and not online. And they’re growing. They’re the one sector that continues to grow along with the elites. The elites don’t grow in terms of numbers because part of why they’re elite is that they say no far more often than say yes. And then there’s the for-profits, it wasn’t possible for a long time to offer a fully online degree. There was something called the 50% rule. When that rule was finally rescinded or lifted, you could offer degrees fully online. And the not-for-profit industry mostly looked down their nose at them like, “Oh, this can’t be good quality.” Whereas they just didn’t like it. They held them in disdain. So, the for-profits rushed into the vacuum created, and they really came to own the online space For a long time. University of Phoenix at its height was close to 500,000 students online and at satellite sites in hybrid.

But you had others like Corinthian and ITT and Kaplan, et cetera. At their height, they educated 12% of all American college students. They also counted for 50% of the loan default rates. So, they were problematic players. They are in steep, steep, steep decline. The Department of Ed has gone after them, especially during the Obama administration. They closed down Corinthian, they fined them. Phoenix is now I think 80,000 students from its height of 500,000 and trying to get itself sold. You may have followed that the University of Arkansas almost acquired them and has backed off. So, the private sector has really reinvented itself a little bit, some would argue in the OPM, outsource program managers, companies like 2U and conversion models. So, conversion model is where you take a for-profit university and you flip it into a not-for-profit with an OPM attached to it. This is getting a lot of scrutiny by regulators who feel like, “Hey, this is just for-profits kind of flying under the air cover of a not-for-profit partner.”

Eric Jaffe: How do you, number one, think about the quality of the education that you’re providing? What does success look like? How do you measure it? And then scaling at the level that you have, how do you ensure that you’re maintaining quality as it scales up? I would imagine it’s somewhat easier given that it’s online, but maybe I’m wrong.

Dr. Paul LeBlanc:
No, it’s a great question. So, I don’t love the word quality because I think it’s a bush that people hide behind all the time when they don’t want to do something. So, it’s like, “Wait a minute, that’s not good quality.” So, I often talk about efficacy. How do we measure our impact on learners? When people come to us and they make sacrifices, right? They work hard, they take out loans, they save up to pay their tuition, their families save up to pay tuition. They come to us to get a job done. And I think one of the things we get very disciplined about in our work with online in all of our programming is, “What job do we think people are paying us to do?” So, for the undergrads who come to campus, I would argue that it’s two jobs. The first job is to get a degree that will help them get a great job and a good career.

That’s the number one. Every poll, every survey, all the research shows that that’s why students go to college. But they almost take that for granted, less so than they did in the past. Now they’re questioning ROI. Now they’re questioning, “Will I really get a good job? Is it really worth it?” But historically, they just took it for granted. “Yep, I get that college degree. I’m going to get a good job at the end.” And they were largely right for a long time. The second job they pay us to do is what I would call, broadly speaking, a coming of age job. That 17-year-old when they’re at college wants to be transformed. They want to figure out, “What am I about? Why am I here?” The big philosophical questions. They want to gain confidence. They want to reinvent themselves. They want to get out from under their parents. They want independence.

We create safety nets at a residential campus to let them make mistakes and not get hurt in the process, ideally. They want to fall in love, they want to drink too much on Saturday night, they want to study abroad and explore the world. You put all of those things together and I would sort of put it in a bucket called coming of age. Now, let me shift over to my online students. Your 30-year-old, you did two tours in Iraq, you got two or three kids, you got a job that’s not paying enough. Your bills are piling up. You had credits from your time in the army and maybe some community college before you went in the army. You didn’t do very well back then. It wasn’t really interesting to you, but you now need to get a degree. You need a way better job, but you’re sinking.

So, you do this very hard thing. You go back to college, you know what you don’t want. You don’t want a coming of age experience. You’ve had all the coming of age you can handle. You get some other things you need. And we get very clear about this, and I think they still remain largely unchanged. Our adult learners and online want four things from us. They want convenience. They are trying to do an education, incredibly busy lives. They’ve got family, they’ve got work, they’re racing. They just don’t have a lot of time. Low income people in America have less time. If you work in huge swaths of our industries like retail, hospitality, you might not even know what your schedule is next week. First thing they want is convenience. “Make this fit into my busy life.” So, the reason we sort of grew so fast is that there’s a lot of adult learners out there who fit this bill. 39 million Americans who have some credits to no degree and often have debt.

And if you tell them to go to a community college to work on that program, guess what they’re doing? They’re racing from work at five o’clock to make a 5:30 class. Maybe they’re eating a fast food dinner in the parking lot, they’re getting home, maybe too late to see their kids who have already tucked into bed at night, right? It’s really hard. I’ve given them an online alternative that says, “Hey, you can go home, catch the end of your daughter’s softball game, have dinner together as a family. Help them with their homework. Make a cup of tea. Log on to your learning platform at nine o’clock or 9:30 and now you’re a student.” And guess what? It fits much better in your life. And if it’s a busy day, because we’re asynchronous, don’t worry about it, you’ll catch up on the next day.

So, convenience is number one, and then the other three I will do really fast. Another one is credential. “Give me the right credential to unlock an opportunity. Will this really be valuable?” Cost, “I’m already low income. Help me afford this thing.” That’s important to me. We didn’t raise tuition and online for 10 years. And then finally completion time, “I feel a sense of urgency. That’s why I’m doing this thing.” So, that’s the why they come to us. But the other amazing thing that happens along the way is that they change as a person. What they often say, “I want my kid to be proud of me. I want my daughter to know her mom is a college graduate. I want my grandchildren to know their grandmother’s a college graduate.” So, yeah, they come for the job, but they come for something much more powerful as well.

Eric Jaffe:
What is your perspective on the ability of online courses to achieve its goals? And what are those goals? Is it conveying information? Is it enabling the student to achieve a level of competency, to develop a skill? How do you look at that?

Dr. Paul LeBlanc:
If you take a look at the research on high-impact practices, what really transforms and changes students and helps them, rarely do you see the traditional classroom cited. It’s actually experiential learning. It’s internships, it’s study abroad. When people talk about what had the biggest impact on them as a student, rarely do they talk about a class, but they do often talk about a faculty member. But it’s usually not about their teaching, it’s about their relationship. When we look at what we try to do in our online at scale, we need to do really well-designed academic programs. We spend a lot of time on that as with any institution. But we really plant our flag on relationship. And our secret sauce is actually our coaching model. Our academic advisors, they’re called academic advisors [inaudible] university, but I think of them as life coaches. They’re the central relationship with our students.

You go from class to class, so teacher to teacher as you move through your program with us, but the person who stays with you through the whole journey is your academic advisor. And this past weekend, the most emotional moments was watching students seeing for the first time in person, this advisor who’s been such an important part of their journey. I mean, they talk about it as a, “I would not have been here today. I wouldn’t be getting my diploma. I wouldn’t have stuck with it if not for,” fill in the name. And that’s really, I think at the heart of our model and it’s why we’re able to scale.

And I talked about community colleges are so underfunded that there’s some community colleges who have an advisor ratio of one to 1,600. There’s no relationship there with the pandemic and seeing what was sort of landing on the laps of our academic advisors have reduced our advising loads from about 280 down to about 180 at the cost of $22 million. I mean, we had to hire a lot more advisors, but we think it’s really important because the thing that gets our students through at much higher levels of completion is that relationship, that’s the key for us.

Eric Jaffe:
Maybe you could explain more about what the academic advisor does, but it’s hard for me to understand how the conveyance of information and development of skills and competencies is achieved by the advisor, if that makes sense.

Dr. Paul LeBlanc:
No, it’s not by the advisor. So, you still have your faculty members, you still have your classes in our competency-based models, you’re still working on your projects and doing performance based assessments. So, all of that would look absolutely familiar. All of our courses are designed by an instructional design team. So, there’s a faculty member, sometimes we’ll call them a subject matter expert, but there’s a faculty member, but they’re not designing the course by themselves. They’re working with instructional designers, media content experts, assessment experts, right? And that whole team is looking at the course together. There’re rubrics for all the work. So it’s very rigorous in terms of that. The assessments are guided by those rubrics. They’re very uniform. So, there’s a trade-off here, and I think it’s important when I always want to acknowledge it. So, what we get is uniform quality. That is if you teach for us, we are handing you the course and you don’t have a lot of latitude to veer from it.

You can add things. We’d always want you to add your special perspective. And our students love when their faculty members are practicing professionally. They want, “What does this really look like at work?” But honestly, the evaluations, the assessments, those are all predesigned. Everyone’s [inaudible] at the same pace. And that uniformity ensures quality so that you don’t end up having a better or worse experience depending on what faculty you had and how good they were at designing their course. And we all know that, those of us who went to traditional institutions, that’s the lore of the dormitory. Like, “Oh, don’t take intro to psych with so-and-so, that course is terrible. Do with so-and-so if you can get in their section, but go early because everybody wants their course.” Right? Students navigate that unevenness of quality, we have much better optics. And then of course, we monitor every section of every course.

We have experienced faculty peeking in and doing a qualitative assessment. We’re very data driven. We know when students have been engaged or not, when faculty haven’t logged in, when maybe student questions are going unanswered. It’s a level of scrutiny that traditional faculty would really chafe against, but it’s what allows us to feel comfortable that good things are happening in the class, and to intervene quickly when things are going sideways. In a traditional classroom, that faculty member closes the door. That’s it. I have no optics, no insights unless there’s a complaint. So, what you might lose is that occasional brilliant faculty member that everybody on campus wanted to take who had designed their course in quite a different way, and it was fabulous. We don’t get that variation, but it’s a trade-off we have to make when you’re working at scale. The risk is not, okay so you might lose that occasional, very different approach surrendered to our uniform approach. But our uniform approach means that when you are offering, as we often do 800 sections of intro to psych, we reliably know what’s going on.

Eric Jaffe:
Do you see the program that you’ve put together being something that could be copied across a variety of the different buckets you defined earlier?

Dr. Paul LeBlanc:
So, you won’t see it at the elites and you probably won’t see it at most of the campus-based programs because that’s where kind of the faculty hold on my course, my section, my way of approaching it is most strong, but almost all schools post-pandemic now have online operations of one kind or another. And this is very, very common in those online operations. And the Office of the Inspector General says, there are about 550 institutions that now use OPMs. All of those OPMs use this approach as well. It’s time-tested, it works well. It offers superior instruments or tools for assuring quality than what we have available in the traditional models.

Eric Jaffe:
I’m stuck between thinking something like ChatGPT on the one hand represents somewhat of a threat, I suppose, to the model that you’ve described. On the other hand, I could see it being an enabler. How do you see your offering 10 years from now once ChatGPT and AI has more fully embedded itself in day-to-day life?

Dr. Paul LeBlanc:
Wow, that’s the question I’m spending about 80% of my time on these days, and I don’t know the answer yet. If you know George Siemens, who I think is just one of the best thinkers about AI in education and somebody you might want to have on your show at some point. George and I have talked a lot about this, and George believes that we will see the fundamental, the existential foundation of education is epistemological, right? It’s about ways of knowing what do you know? How do you know, taxonomies of knowledge, et cetera, et cetera. And in a world in which knowledge is now not scarce, it’s incredibly abundant, incredibly powerful. It’s only one prompt away that the value of knowledge goes down and that we will shift. We will need to shift to questions of ontology, questions of being, what does it mean to be human in the world increasingly shaped, managed, driven by AI? So, questions of relationship personhood, community, creativity, these distinctly human things will become more and more important.

That would be a major flip of the switch in the way that universities think about those questions. Universities are built on epistemology, right? We’ll spend months and months and years talking about curriculum, courses, what should students know, teaching and learning, et cetera, et cetera. And we believe the ontological questions kind of happen because we create the conditions for them. That is, “Well, if you come to campus, you’ll figure out who you are. You’ll understand love, you’ll understand heartbreak before you leave us. You’ll encounter cultures different than your own. You’ll get really good at navigating that.” But we won’t do it with real intentionality. We won’t measure it, we won’t design for it. That’s kind of on you. We’ve created the conditions for you. You go do that. So, it’s a secondary purpose.

If George is right, knowledge is going to be way less valuable. And I tend to agree. I think overnight curricula across America is now on a date minimally. Can you imagine a future where your gen ed requirements are not about the core courses the university wants you to have, but the core human skills the university wants you to possess? Can you imagine that gen ed starts with meditation, self-care, theories of human development, building community? And it’s easy to sort of roll your eyes a little bit at that. But what’s most missing in America right now, right? Record levels of mental health, epidemic of suicide, loss of a sense of community post-pandemic and post-social media, still social media. You could argue that that’s the university that America most needs because I think a lot of knowledge work is going to go away, at least low-level and mid-level knowledge work.

What’s the business of the university that’s currently construed? Knowledge work. We are full of knowledge workers, and I think we’re going to be forced to radically rethink what the work looks like and who does the work and in what ways. I was talking to someone who has a program, two-year programs, and they train paralegals and they’re already integrating ChatGPT into the training of their paralegals. And what they’re saying to them is, “You have to be a 10X paralegal, i.e, you have to do the work of nine other paralegals.” And that’s kind of great. Every law firm would want that paralegal to work for them. But what happens to the other nine who don’t get jobs? There’s going to be massive impacts on the workforce that we’re not ready for.

Universities are constructing some large measure to prepare people for the workforce. That’s what our majors look like the way they do. What happens when you only need 10% of the accountants that we currently have? What happens when the legal profession is a small fraction of its current size? So, I just did an essay with a colleague in Paris, Boris Walbaum, who is head of College Forward. It’s a brand new interesting, innovative college. And we went back to take a look at what happened when steam power came on the scene. And what you saw was sort of four categories of jobs, and maybe a useful way to think about this, the four categories would be jobs that just get evaporated. They went away. Jobs that were untouched, then jobs that continued, but very much in a different form. And then jobs that were created that never existed before. And if you think about AI and ChatGPT, it’s kind of a useful taxonomy.

So, jobs that won’t be changed by AI are probably dancers. There’s certain creative jobs, not all, right? And on the other end, jobs will go away. I think a lot of low-level, medium level jobs. I don’t think nurses are going to go away, but I think they’re going to be AI augmented. I think that’s one of those jobs will look different because they have these very powerful algorithmic co-workers available to you as you do the work. And then jobs to be created. And here’s an interesting one, again, it’s another flip of the switch. And I really am starting to think there are going to be all these reversal of polarities, if I use the newsroom as an example, the stars of the newsroom are writer, reporters and editors, and the lowest job in the organization usually reserve for an intern is like the fact-checker, right? Lowest status job.

In a world where we can create content very fast and very cheaply using AI, maybe the status and value of reporters and editors goes down. And in that such a world where knowing what’s really true is so hard, maybe there’s a rise in status for those who sort of establish veracity. Fact checking becomes a whole new industry, and there are like the BBC have positions for people who are called disinformation specialists. Those jobs are going to become way more important when I don’t know if that picture I’m looking at is real. If that video of Eric Jaffe is like, “Is that really him or is that an AI creation? Is the thing I’m reading something created by AI? Can I trust it to be accurate?” So, it’s going to be a fascinating time. It has enormous implications for universities, existential implications for universities.

Eric Jaffe:
On a more mundane note, I’m curious, and I’ve read your thoughts on competency-based learning. Can you talk about grades? Do grades work? And if not, what should replace them particularly in the context of this evolution you’re describing?

Dr. Paul LeBlanc:
Yeah. So, I have to tell you, I just hate grades. And I’m old enough and been around long enough to say I do away with all of them. I think they’re sort of practically unethical, because if you really believe in the criticality of relationship. The thing I that is the most powerful is the relationship between a teacher and student. I actually argue when I went to college at Framingham State, I actually felt like I was loved, and I don’t mean romantic love obviously, but more of a parent and child. In terms of, I mattered to people there, they actually put in time. They actually took pains to understand who I was as a human being and understand my complexity as a human being. They invested in me, right like, I mattered to them as a form of love. And I think about grades as like, if you love somebody, I don’t say to my wife at the end of the month “Hey hon, I’d give you a solid B on cooking this month and only a C+ on leaving your crap around the house.” Like that’s not going to fly with my wife. We don’t grade and what I love about competency-based education is that it doesn’t make learning a variable. It makes time a variable. So, if you think about the credit hour and which is the foundation of 99% of higher ed, it’s really good at telling you how long someone sat, 15 weeks, for example, and at the end of 15 weeks, we assign a variable grade that doesn’t really tell us very much about what they learned. What I love about competency-based programs is that we talk about mastery and not yet, and there’s something so, so, almost violent about an F. The F we often envision is the student who’s just a complete goof off and spent all their time getting high in the dorm room and didn’t do the work, they deserve an F.

But what if it’s a student who’s juggling a job and kids and has an addicted spouse? There are a million reasons for the F. If you take a look at competencies where we’re very rigorous about measuring. So, being able to say what a competency is and then how you know, that puts you in the world of performance-based assessments. So, if a competency has 10 elements on the rubric, on the KPIs, we would say, “Oh, Eric, you get eight of them. Here are the two that you’re still struggling with. You haven’t not yet on this competency, but you’re getting real close, now let’s work on those two things.” And you don’t pay a penalty for resubmitting as you do in more traditional education. So, I think grades are really a terrible thing, and I wish we could get rid of them.

I have an earlier book. I had no social life in the pandemic, so I wrote two books. But the book before Broken was called Students First. And it opens with a story of a young woman I met in Boston. She had a transcript that was full of Fs and Ws, failures and withdrawals. Turns out she was from the poorest neighborhood in Boston. She was a single mom. She had no social capital, no family around her, really. She was very low-income. And she had a seven-year-old who had chronic respiratory illness. And every time her little girl got sick, she would miss a week of class and she would fall behind and she’d do poorly on the exam. And if it was early enough in the term, she’d take the withdrawal. And if it was too late, she had to take the F. She looked like somebody who wasn’t ready for college. But when we put her in our competency-based program where she could hit the pause button because no time is not fixed.

So, if she needed to stop, take care of her daughter, she just stopped studying and then she’d pick up again. And she turned out to be really smart, and she raced to her associate’s degree in a year. And she’s now well on her way to her bachelor’s degree and I talked to her about it. And she said, “I’m the schedule. I’m the calendar now. My life sets the pace, sets the time.” And I thought it was a really powerful lesson for me. It wasn’t that she wasn’t ready for college. We didn’t have a college that was ready for her.

Eric Jaffe:
Well, Paul LeBlanc, I think I may need to invite you back for a second episode of Deciding Factors because we only got through about a third of the questions that I asked, but such a fascinating conversation. Really inspiring to hear what you’re doing at Southern New Hampshire and just really appreciate you coming on the show today and sharing your insights.

Dr. Paul LeBlanc:
Well, thank you so much for having me, Eric. I’m honored, flattered to be with you.

Eric Jaffe:
We hope you’ll join us next time for a brand new episode of Deciding Factors, featuring another one of GLG’s network members. Every day, GLG facilitates conversations with experts across nearly every industry and geography, helping our clients with insight that leads to true clarity. Feel free to leave us a review on Apple Podcast. We’d love to hear from you or email us at decidingfactors@glgroup.com if you have feedback or ideas for future show topics. For Deciding Factors and GLG, I’m Eric Jaffe. Thanks for listening.

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