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Free College Hits Students By Surprise

Free College Hits Students By Surprise

Steve Heisler

Robert Frost Hall, Southern New Hampshire University

Southern New Hampshire University faces the COVID financial crisis head-on by reducing its tuition to zero

Part of the Marketing News Higher Ed Marketing Special Issue


In accordance with its mission to increase access to affordable education, Southern New Hampshire University, a private school with about 4,000 in-person and 87,000 online undergraduates, has aimed to reduce its tuition to $10,000 a year since 2019. Its projections initially targeted 2023 as an achievable endpoint for the goal, but the timeline was hastened as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“SNHU has long been a helper in a crisis,” says Alana Burns, CMO of SNHU as well as a member of the school board. “Our president [Paul LeBlanc] always talks about [how] you can always find people to run toward a problem to fix it.”

First, the school board directly addressed the crisis on a medical level. The school crafted safety protocols for frontline and essential workers about how to reenter their homes contaminant-free. They also reached out to the city of Manchester, New Hampshire, offering their gymnasium as a makeshift hospital space, if needed, and volunteering to prepare lunches for displaced elementary school students.


Then they turned their eyes toward the student body and immediately made good on their promise to reduce tuition, and then some. Starting with the incoming class of 2024—more than 1,100 students beginning in the fall of 2020 slated to attend in-person—tuition would be free for their first year and then $9,600 per year after. This is a significant reduction from the original price of $31,000 per year, currently being paid by students until at least fall 2021. The board attached no strings: Should a student want to leave after their freshman year, they would owe nothing. And the price reduction applied whether campus opened in the fall or not (though it wouldn’t cover room and board).

“There’s so much uncertainty from a consumer perspective; we’re all sort of out of control,” Burns says. “[We] wanted to tell the freshman class—these are the kids that were born [post-]September 11 and are having no prom and no senior year—we wanted to offer them some certainty.”

The school’s marketing team was tasked with preparing for and making the announcement, which required communication with university staff and crafting the perfect message for admitted students and their parents.


Burns and the marketing team wanted to communicate the free tuition to students via email as soon as possible after the decision was made. They also knew that once the message hit students’ inboxes, the rest of the university would be inundated with calls asking for clarification. After all, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

They spent a few days prepping to walk faculty, staff and admissions representatives through the logistics of how the coming 2020-2021 school year would work. All freshmen are provided with a general education program, attending classes that consist primarily of fellow freshmen. They will be further divided into cohorts to encourage camaraderie in smaller groups and given the same opportunities any other freshman would receive, such as the ability to participate in campus clubs and, if the dorms open up, the option to live on campus. The marketing department prepared supporting documentation, including an F.A.Q.

President LeBlanc composed an email to students and parents, in collaboration with the marketing and communications departments, that dubbed the initiative an “innovation scholarship.” The message followed many of the best practices that brands have adopted in response to COVID-19: It acknowledged that the world is topsy-turvy at the moment and that the safety of SNHU students was a top priority. The letter explained what the university was doing to address the crisis head-on—in this case, providing families with the assurance of an education regardless of any financial burden the pandemic might create or exacerbate.

Once the pieces were in place, marketing sent its message and included other important members of the community: alumni, current students, donors and other internal stakeholders. In communicating with the media shortly after, the team decided to make use of their relationships in the media, eschewing their usual catch-as-catch-can approach of using PR Newswire and instead reaching out to contacts directly.


In addition to the expected onslaught of questions, phones rang off the hook with heartfelt gratitude. Many prospective students shared that they were about to turn down the offer of admission due to cost or take a gap year as things in the world settled down, but the latest news changed their minds. Parents opened up about their financial hardships and how meaningful it was for SNHU to deliver such bright news during such a dark time. One mother praised the school’s ability to understand student needs, raving that, “The email was incredible and in-tune to our reality.”

The next two days shattered records. After the announcement was made, the school received 350 deposits for enrollment within one week. For reference, last year in late April they secured only 88 deposits in a week. SNHU has so far collected more than 1,000 deposits.

The story continued to spread. News of SNHU’s tuition reduction was covered by 87 articles across 11 states, with a potential reach of 270.2 million people. Notable publications included Forbes, The New Yorker, Boston Globe and WGBH. Posts went up on Twitter and Facebook linking to the press release posted on SNHU’s website, resulting in 15,000 impressions on social and more than 1,400 clicks through to the site. (The page itself earned more than 50,000 clicks on its own.) And while the school’s average engagement on Facebook and Twitter each hovers at about 1%, this news saw a 14% engagement rate on Facebook and 8% on Twitter.

Lauren Keane, assistant VP of communications at SNHU, is thrilled by the results and feels that her experience can serve as a case study in building lasting value.

“Regardless of industry, marketers and communicators must put their customers and audiences first—be flexible, demonstrate that you care about them as humans, and show empathy,” Keane says. “That is what consumers will remember when the pandemic is over.”

Photo by Lauren Keane, courtesy of Southern New Hampshire University.

Steve Heisler served as staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at