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Cut-rate campus

Students forgo frills to save thousands

This brick office building houses Southern New Hampshire University's Salem campus. This brick office building houses Southern New Hampshire University's Salem campus. (Globe Staff Photo / David Kamerman)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / February 3, 2009
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SALEM, N.H. - In this border town where shoppers hunt for tax-free bargains, they can get something else on the cheap: a college education. A private one, at that.

The campus, if it can generously be called that, encompasses the third floor of a new brick building in a nondescript suburban office park just off Interstate 93. With pale peach walls, gold-framed Monet posters, and fake ficus plants, the environs could be mistaken for a dentist office.

But inside at this satellite of Southern New Hampshire University, freshmen study Greek tragedy, the Roman Empire, and business statistics. Tuition costs just $10,000 a year.

Twenty miles north, in Manchester, students on the school's wooded main campus shell out $25,000 in tuition to attend classes taught by some of the same professors. In addition to academics, though, they have access to a state-of-the-art gym with a rotating climbing wall and an Olympic-size pool. By next January, they will dine in a sparkling $14 million two-level food court spanning 46,800-square feet.

Southern New Hampshire is at the forefront of a push by some colleges around the country to provide a no-frills, lower-cost education for students who don't mind forgoing traditional college life and its accompanying amenities, particularly during a recession, as long as they get a diploma.

At a college stripped to its academic core, some higher education leaders worry that students are missing the dearly held residential experience. For generations, glossy brochures have touted the ideal of spending four years ambling along leafy quads and partaking in deep discussions with dormmates late into the night.

"Families come to campus and they want to see a food court, a fitness center with a climbing wall, and brand-new dorms," said Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire. "So we build everything, each one nicer than the other, to remain competitive."

But, LeBlanc added: "I'm not sure that improves education. It just drives the price up. Not everybody needs it, and frankly, not everybody can afford it."

Southern New Hampshire began its discount two-year model in the fall for freshmen who commute to satellite campuses in Salem or Nashua, and it intends to start one in Portsmouth. Daniel Webster College, a tiny private school in Nashua, plans to offer a similar tuition break this fall for freshmen who agree to live at home and commute to the main campus; instead of the $26,000 yearly tuition, they would pay $15,000.

The public university system in Pennsylvania is also considering the possibility of creating four-year colleges without dorms, athletics, or extracurricular activities to lower the price of a bachelor's degree.

Parents and students struggling to pay ever-soaring college costs say they welcome the new options, especially at a time when families are worried about layoffs, loans are scarce, and there is greater aversion to debt.

Southern New Hampshire's satellites, which offer more personalized attention, appeal to parents whose children have amassed less-than-stellar academic records in high school and who wonder whether their investments in a traditional college would simply be buying four years of "Animal House."

So what does $10,000 - comparable to tuition and required fees at a state school - buy? A full load of prescribed introductory courses in English, math, psychology, and history, intimate classes of fewer than 10 students, and built-in office hours with professors, so students don't drop out.

The only amenities at the Salem satellite: computer labs, vending machines, and a lounge with a stack of magazines and a chess board.

"It's not the mainstream college experience, but it helps keep your sights focused on your work," said Matthew Gambardella, an 18-year-old business major who commutes 40 minutes from his parents' home in Peabody. He has a twin brother who attends another private college, at full tuition, but he chose the no-frills option to help his parents keep costs down. After two years at the satellite campuses, attending classes four mornings a week, students can transfer to the main 320-acre campus, where they then must pay the full tuition. Room and board costs another $10,000, bringing the total traditional college experience to about $35,000 a year.

On the Manchester campus, signs of college life buzz. Students shoot pool in the campus pub, which routinely hosts stand-up comedy. Fliers on dining hall tables advertise Greek rush and an activity fair showcasing more than 50 student clubs. Hallway bulletin boards tout upcoming ski trips, a speaker series on entrepreneurship, themed housing options, and intramural badminton, ping pong, and racquetball.

While some may call that residential experience an elite ideal, others question whether a cheaper, commuter education model is as effective. Research has shown that students who live on campus are, on average, more likely to graduate on time, get better grades, and be happier with their college experience, higher education leaders said.

"A no-frills approach is better than nothing, but it's very difficult to achieve the same thing as having a total educational experience that comes with living on campus," said Richard Ekman, president of The Council of Independent Colleges in Washington, D.C.

Teri Gambardella had always envisioned a traditional residential college education for her twin sons, but rapidly rising tuitions outpaced the family's college savings. She and her husband asked their sons to compromise: They would have to live at home and commute to a school of their choice for the first two years. Under that scenario, the family expected to save $20,000 a year on room and board costs for both teens.

Then they heard of the steep tuition break at Southern New Hampshire.

"I nearly fell over when we were interviewing and they told us the cost," Gambardella said. "I said, 'You're kidding!' My husband and I just looked at each other and we were praying that Matt might like to go there. When he said yes, we said, 'Whoopee!' "

She knows the savings - a combined $35,000 a year - come at an experiential cost. She and her husband had attended residential colleges in Boston, a rite of passage that taught independence, self-discovery, and how to live among diverse peers.

"By being with other students and listening to the way they handle projects and even problems in life, you learn a great deal," Teri Gambardella said. "That's what they're missing right now. They just leave at the end of the day and go home."

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

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