Students First

Students First Equity, Access, and Opportunity in Higher Education

Paul LeBlanc, Foreword by Bridget Terry Long
paper, 232 Pages
Pub. Date: October 2021
ISBN-13: 978-1-68253-675-9
Price: $34.00

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Pub. Date: October 2021
ISBN-13: 978-1-68253-677-3

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2022 Phillip E. Frandson Award for Literature, University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA)

Paul LeBlanc has reimagined higher education, with a focus on the most fundamental of functions: student learning. In Students First, he advocates for an entire higher education ecosystem in which students have the flexibility to gain, assess, and certify their knowledge on their own terms and timelines.


If you read only one book about American higher education, read this one. Student’s First is simply the clearest, best-reasoned, and most compelling analysis of the problems facing higher education today. It is also a warning that unless we address those problems, we threaten America’s most cherished hopes for social justice, economic mobility, and a robust civil society. But Paul LeBlanc offers us more than just critique; he sets out a vision and a roadmap for change based not just on glittery promises but on his hard-won experience as one of America’s most innovative university presidents. Paul LeBlanc is a national treasure, and his work, in this book and on the ground, is a beacon for all of us. — Ted Mitchell, president, American Council on Education and former US Under Secretary of Education

As the leading innovator in American higher education today, Paul LeBlanc paints a powerful, personal portrait of what’s at stake in the urgent task of advancing social mobility through a radically redesigned system of higher education. LeBlanc makes a compelling and convincing case for a competency-based education model that will create the opportunity needed to quite literally make the world better for all of us. — Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO, Lumina Foundation

In this book, Paul LeBlanc combines two scarce ingredients.The first is a loving understanding of what college students from all backgrounds need to succeed in school—not just recent high school graduates but also first-generation attenders, immigrants, working students, students who otherwise can’t afford college. The second is a realistic approach to solving higher education systems problems. The result, part tough critique of today’s universities, part clear-eyed and practical understanding of how to transform college accessibility, affordability, and student success, is necessary reading for anyone who wants to change our nation’s outmoded higher education system so they are improving educational and economic opportunities for all Americans. — Michael F. Bennet, US senator and former superintendent, Denver Public Schools

Colleges and universities must find ways to serve as engines of opportunity, particularly for first-generation college students, working adults, and others who can’t afford to attend a residential campus for four or more years. LeBlanc’s book offers a bold proposal for addressing access, equity, and quality of actual learning, while rethinking federal financial aid to better support low-income learners. A must-read for anyone interested in making higher education once again work for everyone, not just the privileged. — Arne Duncan, former US Secretary of Education

Paul LeBlanc breaks new ground with this compelling case for competency-based higher education. Leveraging deep expertise and lived experience, Students First is a critical contribution to the debate around the future of higher education, and it could not come at a more important time. — Maria Flynn, president and CEO, Jobs for the Future

For higher education, a pressing challenge is access: with the tools at hand, how do we do more to unlock talent that for too long has remained hidden? Through his inspired, innovative, and pragmatic leadership, President LeBlanc continues to find fresh answers, transforming SNHU into an engine of opportunity along the way. His optimism, energy, and clarity of thought leap from the pages of this important work. — L. Rafael Reif, president, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In this book, Paul LeBlanc uses his invaluable experience as an innovator in higher education to share a path forward for America’s higher education system as a tool for deeper human understanding and for equity and access to all learners at every stage of their education and careers. LeBlanc’s compelling argument—that higher education’s focus on outmoded, time-based measures of achievement is rendering it increasingly irrelevant in the twenty-first century—should serve as an important spark to start a long-overdue conversation. And should help us achieve real, measurable progress. — Maggie Hassan, former governor of New Hampshire

This important book—from one of America’s most innovative university presidents—dares us to rethink higher education on what seem to be the most sensible notions: let’s focus on actual learning and let’s make learning work for each individual learner. But higher education is built around deeply flawed measures of time and treats all students with the misguided benchmark of the ‘average learner.’ There is no such learner, and our systems fail far too many. LeBlanc offers a bold Plan B, one rooted in real-world experience, tested and proven, and available to us if we are courageous enough to embrace it. — Todd Rose, author, The End of Average; coauthor, Dark Horse; and cofounder, Populace

Both K–12 education and higher education will become truly centered on student learning and smoothly integrated when they flip from a tired model of ‘time served’ to align around ‘competencies earned.’ LeBlanc does us all a favor, laying out this vision and how we can get there faster. Read Students First and sign on—our future depends on it. — Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the board, Massachusetts Department of Higher Education

For all those concerned about the teaching and learning at colleges and universities, this is the book that’s needed now, written by the right person to point the way forward. Paul LeBlanc lays out the challenges and opportunities for colleges to play a meaningful role in every individual’s development in prose that is relatable and clear. The conclusion from the book is clear as well: it’s past time to rethink our time-based education system to focus on learning. — Michael B. Horn, coauthor, Choosing College, Disrupting Class, and Blended and cofounder, Clayton Christensen Institute

Even before the pandemic, there was an urgent need for a radical rethink in higher education to ensure it matched students’ aspirations and set them up to succeed in the economy and society of the future. The pandemic has intensified the importance and urgency of the task. Paul LeBlanc’s book explains how it can be done. In addition to being well written and well argued, the book has the great virtue that the author has not just thought deeply about the challenges involved; he has overcome them in practice and actually done what he says needs to be done. Not just theory. Not just practice. Both. — Sir Michael Barber, founder and chair, Delivery Associates

'President Paul LeBlanc, you saved my life,' a student whispers as she walks across the stage during an SNHU graduation. This is what we want for everyone. This book not only shows what our education system is missing, how it costs too much and is inequitable, but shows us the way Paul has broken through barriers towards a more equitable and affordable competency-based college. Students First is a historical analysis of a problem, but more importantly it outlines a way forward. The journey should inspire us all to be our own pioneers of change for our students. It is a book I will give to all of my staff to read. — Dennis Littky, cofounder, Big Picture Learning and cofounder, Metropolitan Regional Center and Technical Center

In this text Paul LeBlanc argues powerfully for a long-overdue rethink of higher education. Whilst deeply embedded in the US higher education world, this book has powerful lessons for higher education everywhere. If we don’t think about how our students, and future students, engage with the world and if we are not relevant to their lived experiences, then the higher education system will begin to become less relevant and be overtaken. Paul argues for profound change in the way that we build higher education in order that we serve industry and commerce, our students, and society with the opportunities that they deserve. Paul presents this text from a deeply personal perspective: he has done it and done it brilliantly. We should all listen. — Ian Dunn, provost, Coventry University

To know how upside-down the priorities of higher ‘education’ are, you need only know that the football coach at Clemson made $8.3 million last year as part of a ten-year, $93 million contract, while tens of thousands of higher education students are failing to complete their degrees each year because of systemic failings. SNHU president, leading higher education innovator, and author Paul LeBlanc knows this absurdity well and, at SNHU, he has put his money where his mouth is by building scaled delivery of competency-based online higher education where the priority is the 150,000-plus global students. As absurd as it is for an ‘amateur’ college football coach to have a $93 million contract, in this important new book, Paul successfully asserts the equivalent absurdity of a higher education system that tethers students to grading curves and seat time rather than standards of learning and mastery that would equip all students for personal and economic success. — Deborah Quazzo, managing partner, GSV Ventures and cofounder, ASU+GSV Summit

This is a book of great consequence—brilliant clarity on why and how higher education has gone off track, and how to transform it. Students First is a recipe for reforming higher education and bettering the lives of millions of people—Dr. Paul LeBlanc is the master chef. — Matthew Wunder, CEO and founder, Da Vinci Schools

Paul LeBlanc extends a provocative invitation to deconstruct higher education and rethink its role in the dawn of a new era for learning. Here’s the why and how formal HE institutions should lead in times of disruption. A must-read for the optimistic and the bold who believe this is the most exciting time for education, and for those ready to join Paul in his visionary quest to fulfill the needs of each learner. — Nieves Segovia, president, SEK Education Group

Students First is a wonderful book. Written by one of the country’s most thoughtful and successful educators, this is a volume that succeeds in telling stories of both dreams and despair, documenting the problems higher education faces and offering visionary and pragmatic solutions for the future. It is one of those rare and very readable books that pulls no punches but leaves the reader with a feeling of optimism about tomorrow. It’s a must-read for anyone who works in or cares about the future of higher education. — Arthur Levine, president emeritus, Teachers College, Columbia University

Some call for educational innovation. Others make it happen. No educational innovators, I suspect, have had a greater impact than Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University or Scott Pulsipher of Western Governors University. If you want to know why, you might want to read LeBlanc’s manifesto. Students First contains endorsements any author would die for. — Inside Higher Ed

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About the Author

Dr. Paul J. LeBlanc is President of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Under the eighteen years of Paul’s direction, SNHU has grown from 2,800 students to more than 170,000 and is the largest nonprofit provider of online higher education in the country, and the first to have a full competency-based degree program untethered to the credit hour or classes approved by a regional accreditor and the US Department of Education.

In 2012 the university was number twelve on Fast Company magazine’s “World’s Fifty Most Innovative Companies” list and was the only university included. Forbes Magazine has listed Paul as one of its fifteen “Classroom Revolutionaries” and one of the “most influential people in higher education” for 2016, and Washington Monthly named him one of America’s ten most innovative university presidents. In 2018, Paul won the prestigious IAA Institute Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence in Higher Education, joining some of the most respected university and college presidents in American higher education.

He has served on the Board of the American Council on Education, the Association of Governing Boards President’s Council, the Academy of Sciences Board on Workforce and Higher Education, as well as many others. He is a sought-after speaker, often appears in the media, and is a contributing writer to Forbes Magazine.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Bridget Terry Long


Interview with Paul LeBlanc

E-book available through online booksellers

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