Friday, July 11, 2014

Emerging Branch Campus Trends?


I’ve mentioned this before, but it interests me that the most read post on this blog is the very first one, which followed an opening introduction.  That post concerned branch campus characteristics, and it has been viewed more than twice as often as any other.  It can be seen at http://branchcampus.blogspot.com/2007/07/characteristics-of-branch-campus.html.  Dating back to 2007, it continues to get regular hits, which I assume means that I chose a good title that shows up on Google searches.

Other frequently and persistently viewed posts mostly relate either to some aspect of branch characteristics, or to financial matters and revenue sharing.  With regard to branch characteristics, in presentations at NABCA and RBCA this year I discussed some emerging trends that I believe are worth watching.  (As usual, what I have to say represents personal observation, rather than any sort of systematic data collection.)

One trend is to open branches at greater distance from the main campus than we’ve typically seen in the past.  Small privates may cross neighboring state lines to place branches in areas they believe are underserved, whereas some larger institutions (also usually private nonprofit) may open branches that lie many states away.  Within a state, I see both public and private institutions opening branches that directly compete with other institutions in a way that ignores explicit or implicit service boundaries established years ago.  (I’m not even going to get into the issue of international branches, which I suspect has a dynamic all its own.)

Perhaps related, more institutions seem to be opening single-program branches or branches that tie only to one or two colleges at a university.  Similarly, some institutions are developing and delivering programs that specifically meet the needs of a major employer, whether a corporation or, in some cases, state government.  (Community and technical colleges have done this for a long time, but it has been less common at universities.) 

Not unlike programs that target the military, these trends make good sense to me, but I also think they stretch the “characteristics” of a typical branch, as I described them in 2007.  Frankly, whereas long-established branches may have been developed to expand access or to block competition, my guess is the newer trends are specifically intended to attract new student audiences and increase revenue.

It also appears to me that more institutions either are pursuing or considering separate accreditation for their branch campuses, or are recognizing their branches as part of a distinct college within the university.  Both separate accreditation and college status strike me as an attempt to give branches more autonomy around program development, allowing them to create distinctive programs to serve their own audience/market, without undue interference from main campus politics and process.

All of this is happening in a context where institutions consider multiple delivery options, create certificate and badge programs that are less than a full degree, or offer accelerated programs that shorten the time to a degree.  Taken together, all these trends suggest a need for targeted marketing/recruitment strategies, in order to make sure that the message gets to the intended audience.  Unfortunately, however, I’m seeing more conflict than ever between branch and main campus marketing and recruitment efforts.  I urge institutional leaders to make sure they have the right structure in place to support success at different campuses serving radically different audiences.

To be clear, I’m neither advocating nor opposing any of these trends.  However, if I were leading a more established branch campus, I believe I’d want to learn more about what other institutions are doing and how I might appropriately reflect those trends at my own campus.  Scanning the environment is more important than ever.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The 2014 Regional and Branch Campus Administrators Conference

The annual Regional and Branch Campus Administrators Conference (RBCA) just concluded today.  For a number of years the conference has been held in June, meeting at the Longboat Key Club resort, which is a stunning venue.  RBCA limits attendance to about 60 participants and typically has just one program track for everyone, which has worked well for this group.

As usual, organizers did a fine job.  Jim Smith, campus dean at Ohio University Lancaster was the conference chair, and the program committee clearly worked hard to create a strong set of sessions.  I have attended RBCA most years since 1995, and I always have a great time.  Indeed, I believe that the annual NABCA and RBCA conferences are highly complementary, and I encourage branch leaders to consider attending one or both, whenever possible.

This year, I provided the opening keynote, discussing my new book, as well as offering some thoughts on future opportunities and risks for branch campuses.  On Monday, I was extremely pleased and flattered when it became apparent that at least a few folks had read my book and found it useful.  Book sales continue to go decently well, I think, although I have no benchmark for comparison.  My deep hope is that Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life will be helpful to those who work on branch campuses, especially if they are newly arrived.  Out on a Limb is my attempt to tell a branch campus story, but I also believe interested individuals could find quite a few potential research projects to test out whatever "claims" I've made.

I know that people working on branch campuses can feel under appreciated, and very often they have limited opportunities to network and share ideas.  RBCA and NABCA help speak to those issues, and I hope my book does, as well.  On branch campuses faculty and staff are all about providing access and opportunity to people who otherwise may have no reasonable expectation of realizing their educational dreams.  It is important work, done by remarkably dedicated professionals.  They deserve support and encouragement!


Monday, May 26, 2014

An Appreciation of Branch Campus Visits


Continuing to share from my personal experiences, I’ve been fortunate to visit a wide range of branch campuses both across the United States and internationally (Hong Kong, Russia, Mexico and Canada).  Some of the domestic visits tied to meetings of NABCA or RBCA, whereas others were consulting jobs, mostly over the last five years.

The consulting work shaped my understanding and opinions more than I expected.  In the absence of a substantial literature or research that identifies best practices, institutions developed branches for their own reasons at varying times in their history.  Every institution I visited had a unique story to tell.  There were common themes, of course, such as struggling to bring programs from the main campus, wrestling with interference from certain main campus offices that think they know more about the branch audience than the people who work there, and making sure that courses and class schedules actually meet student needs.

On the other hand, I’ve been impressed by the way branch leaders manage to get things done in the service of their access mission.  Financial arrangements, partnerships of various sorts, and persistent advocacy often produce remarkable results, even if the organizational structure or institutional politics throw up one barrier after another.  Good job, I say.

The challenges faced by small enrollment branches, with, say, 300-500 students, as well as the way an enrollment of several thousand students changes how a branch operates intrigue me.  At every stop I’ve met people who wear more hats than is fair, with job descriptions from the main campus that don’t begin to describe their days.  I’ve learned about unique strategies developed by campuses that deserve to be shared with other institutions.  I’ve also talked with students who are passionate advocates for their campus and community leaders who cannot understand why a program needed in their town can’t be delivered at their local branch.

My experiences are necessarily anecdotal, I suppose, and they may help explain why it is so difficult to do good research that is not simply descriptive.  I started this blog mostly as a way to share my thoughts and experiences, and my book, Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life was an attempt to organize those thoughts and experiences in a way that might be useful to others who want and need to know that they are not alone.

The future of branch campuses can and should be bright.  I worry that institutional leaders won’t understand the distinctive characteristics of this unique delivery form of higher education that serves audiences in different ways than a traditional campus.  Branches have an important role to play, in combination with online programs and traditional residential campuses, with each meeting a different need, but contributing meaningfully to the institution’s bottom line.  If I can be of help, please let me know.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Out on a Limb: Drawing on the Experience of Leading a Branch Campus System


Perhaps the most interesting career transition for me came with my promotion to vice president at Ohio University.  In that position, I was responsible for five campuses, with a combined enrollment (at the time) of approximately 9000 students.  Each campus had a dean, as well as local faculty and support staff.  In addition, I was responsible for the Division of Lifelong Learning, which supported a variety of programs, including paper-based correspondence courses, summer programs, conferences and workshops, and other activities.  In fact, we had a center in Hong Kong that reported to the dean of Lifelong Learning, so in a sense, we even had a branch on the other side of the world.  Later, we also provided administrative support for online courses and programs, which drew my work in new directions.

Although having a vice president specifically focused on branch campuses and other outreach programs may not be unique, I do believe it is relatively uncommon.  Indeed, Ohio University moved away from having a vice president and now has an executive dean, who reports to the provost.

There were advantages to being a vice president, and in measurable terms, things worked well. We were entirely independent, financially speaking, and paid an overhead of about 8% of gross revenue to the main campus, in addition to other transfers that came to an additional 4% of our revenue.  In my consulting work, I learned that it is unusual for branches to be completely self-funded and self-supporting, but I appreciate the advantages that came our way because of our approach.  We assumed the risk for our campuses, but we also received most of the financial gain from enrollment growth, allowing us to add programs, hire faculty and staff members, improve marketing, and stay current with technology, among other things.

All of this is discussed in more detail in Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life.  I’m sure that my view of branch campuses and how they either thrive or struggle was enhanced by the opportunity to work at the level of an executive officer of the institution.  The last several chapters of the book represent my attempt to capture something of the view from that executive level.

Although branch campus administrators should be committed to the development of their own campus, I believe they often could be more effective lobbyists and advocates in the political environment of a college or university if they better understood how things look at the main campus.  I hope my descriptions have some value on that score.  More importantly, I hope they encourage a more strategic perspective that supports a “mutual gains” approach to negotiation for resources, whether programmatic or financial.

If you work on a branch campus and choose to read Out on a Limb, perhaps you will recognize your experience in the first six or seven chapters, then find some helpful ideas in the remaining parts.  If you are a main campus person who works with branches, I hope the book brings some clarification and encourages deeper conversations with your branch campus colleagues.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Thriving "Out on a Limb"


I consider myself to be an advocate for branch campuses.  At their best, branches create access and opportunity for individuals and contribute to the economic development of the communities they serve.  In Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life I go into much more detail about why branches matter, but for present purposes the key point is that branches serve an audience that is different than the audiences served by a traditional main campus or by a fully online program.  There are excellent opportunities for campuses and programs to partner in multiple ways, but it is a mistake to overlook the differences.

Institutional leaders certainly recognize that the world of higher education is much more complicated and more competitive than it was just a few years ago.  Count me among those who believe that the financial/business models are broken, and the impact of technology has forever changed delivery options in ways that are exciting but also increase risk.  In my opinion, despite recognizing the issues, most leaders remain stuck in frames and practices that are unlikely to be effective in this “new world,” but that’s a story for another day.

The last few chapters of Out on a Limb are more explicitly strategic about the conditions that allow branch campuses to thrive and the likely challenges they will face in the future.    There are outstanding opportunities, but institutions need a comprehensive strategy that includes distinctive approaches for their traditional audience, for online programs, and for their satellite operations.

For branch campuses, I believe the greatest threat to growth occurs when the main campus attempts to control too many decisions that are better made locally, in the mistaken belief that they understand the branch audience or that they need to guard against branch campuses somehow undermining the institutional brand.  Prospective branch students are not the same as main campus prospects, and their priorities are quite different.

Specifically, I believe that course scheduling, marketing/recruitment, and those support services that are directly visible to students should be administered locally, whereas those that are more of the “backroom” sort, such as financial aid needs assessment, registrar, and bursar functions can most efficiently be centralized at the main campus.  Any given institution may vary somewhat from the ideal, but enrollment success depends on connecting effectively with the audience.

Failure to appreciate the perspectives and priorities of different audiences is a serious mistake.  For both online and branch programs it is important to give them enough independence to avoid getting trapped by the demands of the “production engine” (see Govindarajan and Trimble, 2010, The Other Side of Innovation), which will try to rein in anything that is truly innovative, simply because the established academic and administrative units will view that innovation as a distraction, perhaps as a threat, and for sure as inferior to their own efforts on behalf of the institution.  It isn’t easy to support entrepreneurship in an established organization, but those who thrive in the future will figure out how to make it happen.

Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life is available in print and Kindle versions on amazon.com.  I hope you will check it out.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

NABCA Conference for 2014


I attended the annual conference of the National Association of Branch Campus Administrators (NABCA) last week, and it was a great time.  The program was strong, but as usual a lot of the value in attending was the opportunity to network with people committed to the branch mission of providing access to higher education.

I presented a session, titled “Get Strategic to Compete:  New Directions for Branch Campuses” which turned out to be a lot of fun.  The audience was engaged and participated enthusiastically, which in turn gave me all the more energy for my topic.  In a later post I’ll share more about some of the new directions I’ve observed.

My book, Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life was available for purchase at the conference, and I was pleased to have 34 copies picked up.  I also noticed an uptick in purchases of both print and Kindle versions on Amazon, so maybe word is getting around.  I’m not aware of any comparable book that is relatively comprehensive on the branch campus topic, but it is difficult to promote it in the absence of any sort of broad database covering branches.

In fact, I found sessions tied to members of the NABCA research committee to be especially interesting.  That committee has come a long ways over the last several years, and I noted enthusiasm for further steps.  The challenge simply to identify branch campuses and their characteristics is enormous. 

As one who has been around for most of NABCA’s existence, I felt real pride in the work of the current leadership.  I wish the original founders could have attended this year.  Their vision seems to have reached a tipping point, and the organization is definitely on a roll.  NABCA seeks to be a national, broad-based organization in support of branch campuses, and I was struck by the diversity of campus missions represented on the program, including both public and private institutions and growing participation from community colleges.

For years we hoped to establish a position of executive director to provide consistent leadership and better organization, and joyce gilley gossum is making a huge difference in that role.  My congratulations to joyce and to the members of the executive committee who hired her.  Susan Cooper, dean at California State University, Fullerton—Irvine Campus has been president for this past year, and her campus also hosted the conference:  Great job!  Leigh Atkinson, from Ohio University, was conference chair, and Allison Fitzpatrick, from Brookdale Community College was co-chair.  They and their committee had everything well organized, and if there were any glitches, I didn’t notice them.

If you see this post, then by all means track down NABCA.  You can become a member, “friend” NABCA on Facebook, and join their LinkedIn group.  Check out www.nabca.net and keep returning, because things are moving ahead quickly.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Comments Regarding "Out on a Limb: A Branch Campus Life"


Early feedback on my book, Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life, has been gratifying.  I’m pleased that people find it an interesting read, but even happier when they find helpful information or ideas.  There are so few resources for people working on branches that I hope my contribution might provide some support or encouragement.

A few friends have asked about my intended audience, and that’s a good question.  Although I’d like to think that lots of people might find Out on a Limb interesting, the specific reader I kept in mind as I wrote was a campus chief administrator (dean, director, or whatever the title).  In particular, I was thinking about an individual who recently landed on a branch campus without having an extensive branch background.  I know from meeting people at NABCA and RBCA meetings that one can feel a little lost and alone out on that limb, and so I wanted to extend a helping hand.

Secondarily, I also was thinking about a main campus administrator who has branches reporting to him or her and wants some help in thinking through the branch mission, opportunities and challenges.  I’ve met a number of individuals, from presidents on down, who have more or less inherited branch responsibility, and they may quickly begin to realize that working with branches is different than anything they’ve done before.

More broadly, I think the book will be of particular interest to administrators and other professional staff.  Faculty members may or may not be interested in most of the topics covered, although I personally believe the more anyone understands about how branches grow or decline, the better they will be able to contribute to the success of their own campus and to design a satisfying professional career.

I’ve also been asked about my decision to approach the book more or less as a memoir.  Frankly, that decision was the most difficult planning choice that I made.  It was driven partly by the lack of research or other sources that could have supported the broad presentation that I wanted, but also by my desire to present something of a branch campus story, rather than necessarily a work of scholarship.  Eventually, the book concept fell in place for me, when I organized chapters to follow my career trajectory.  Thus, my decisions about audience and to use what I call a “quasi-memoir” approach were conscious decisions on my part that gave the project its focus and structure.

Just as a reminder, Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life is available through Amazon, in either a print or Kindle version.  Tell your friends and colleagues!