Saturday, August 11, 2007

Why branches matter

In previous posts, I described what I take to be the typical (idealized) branch campus and suggested how future research might explore the implications of variation from what is typical. The case for branch campuses, however, is made on both rational and emotional grounds. These campuses matter, and far too many people, both on main campuses and branch campuses, fail to understand adequately why many branches thrive and how they make a difference. As a result, insittutions may not fully exploit the strategic potential of branches.

Some of the reasons branches matter are obvious. They offer access to higher education, usually with flexible scheduling and relatively small classes. Most branch campus instructors are highly committed to teaching, ahead of whatever scholarly interests they may maintain. Staff tend to wear multiple hats and to work in close physical proximity to each other, with the result that administrative departments do not have the sense of separateness that one finds in more highly departmentalized situations--students are less likely to be passed from one office to another.

Learning support may not always be what we'd like it to be on the branches, but compared to many main campuses, at least at large research universities, students perceive a high level of caring. Faculty members tend to be available to students and willing to discuss academic concerns. In part because of the inherently interdisciplinary character of branch campuses, faculty members may be more likely to discuss concerns about students with each other and to recognize problems in time to support a student's success. (As always, my perspective is tied to my experience with branches of research universities. The distinctions may be less apparent at community colleges or at teaching-focused universities.)

The cost of attending a branch campus may be considerably less than attending a residential campus. In Ohio, tuition on university branch campuses is typically lower than on the main campus, but this isn't true in many states or at all types of branches. However, even for traditionally aged students, families tend not to consider the cost of providing room and board at home in the overall cost of attending college. Students may accumulate less in loans and can actually work their way through school, a near impossibility at a residential main campus.

All of this represents generalizations that are commonly true, but not universal. If you believe as strongly as I do in the potential of branch campuses to change lives, then you'll also be disappointed, when you encounter a cynical or unengaged faculty or staff member, or an administrator who doesn't seem to embrace the mission. Moreover, I've found the main campus commitment to undergraduate education at Ohio University to be sincere and strong. I can argue that branch campus students do not receive a lesser educational experience than main campus students, but not that they receive a superior experience.

The real branch campus drama, in my opinion, lies in the personal stories told by their students. Sure, some students attend a branch because they lack the motivation to do anything else. However, I've seen audiences reduced to tears by students telling stories about how his/her life was turned around because of access to the education provided by the local branch campus. These powerful stories can serve an institution's leadership well, if they are used to illustrate how the institution is engaged with employers and communities, not to mention achieving the goals of trustees and state-level policy makers.

Yet, there are other reasons that branch campuses are valuable to institutions. For example, branches may lie in different legislative or congressional districts than the main campus, bringing political advantages that would not otherwise be so apparent. At Ohio University, we found that our branch campuses have access to donors who are not necessarily alumni and would never donate to the main campus, so there are opportunities for gifts that are unlikely to be obtained by the main campus. Broadly speaking, the community engagement and local access provided by branches build support for the institution that can be helpful and demonstrate the value of the broader institution.

Finally, for those who are familiar with the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, an important distinction is made between foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes look great and run around doing lots of different things. Hedgehogs, which may be less attractive, do only one thing, but do it exceptionally well. Branches tend to be hedgehogs, at least as compared to main campuses. That is, they may lack the status of the main campus, but, at their best, they are very focused on a mission of access and service. The result is that many branches get after their local markets with clarity of purpose. Main campus leaders could benefit from considering how and why their branches succeed or fail.

Keeping human and financial resources focused often produces stronger financial results, as well, which may serve broader purposes of the institution. In fact, I'd argue that part of determining whether a branch campus is needed or not should be demonstrating that it can fully cover its costs and help support institutional priorities. In my opinion, it is fundamental that demonstrating need implies demonstrating enrollment and net revenue that make the good investment obvious.

Branch campuses, then, serve a variety of purposes for institutions, including the noble commitments we all celebrate. The purposes served may not be a high priority to everyone on the faculty or in the administration, but the leadership definitely ought to get it. Well placed and supported branch campuses can become one of the most valuable assets of a higher education institution.


Peggy said...

Dr. Byrd,
I read with interest this article that describes very accurately many of the reasons branch campuses are successful. Another point I'd like to make is that branch campuses are less intimidating for many students.
I am dean of one of seven branch campuses of a technical college in S.C. Do you have suggestions for
how other branch administrators increase student enrollment? I face the dilema of convincing main campus administrators to allow me to offer more classes, while oten having to cancel classes due to low enrollment. (We have to have six students for a class to "make".) We already have a distance learning system that allows students from other campuses to combine for classes, but I'd like to offer more on-site instructor classes. Thanks.
Peggy C. Prescott, Ed.D.

Dr. Charles Bird said...

Peggy: Thanks for your comment. I have been out of the country, so I apologize for not responding more quickly.

Your concern about building support for enrollment growth and program expansion is probably the most frequent complaint I hear from branch campus leaders. The solution that will work for you, no doubt, depends on specifics of your situation, but I can offer some observations.

First, the expected enrollment of six per section strikes me as reasonable, most of the time. Branches do sometimes need to offer even smaller sections, in order to complete sequences or allow students to finish a degree. If the limit of six is enforced too strictly, the branch campus will lose credibility with its students and its community, and growth will definitely be more difficult. Minimum section size is a legitimate main campus practice, but it is more difficult at a small branch campus.

In addition, if you have residential faculty, sometimes it is necessary to allow a small section to go forward, simply to complete the faculty member's load. More importantly, I've always argued that low enrollment sections may also be on topics closest to a faculty member's heart, and I'd follow a principle that the occasional opportunity to teach a less-than-popular class is healthy for the faculty member.

On both of these points, however, one has to be very careful or budget problems will follow. If you could follow an average enrollment for sections and for faculty members (which may need to be more like 15 than 6), the budget will be solid and you can meet the needs of students and faculty members.

Finally, I'm not sure whether the following applies to your situation or not, but often when I hear the concern you expressed, the campus leadership is required to obtain the agreement of the main campus academic unit for each section that is offered. (In other words, the main campus department head or dean controls the budget for course offerings and controls faculty assignments, so he or she really decides what will be offered, not the branch campus leadership.) When that is the case, in my personal opinion, you have a real problem.

It is inherent in being a branch campus that the branch does not control curriculum and, in nearly all cases, the main campus does have to approve the offering of branch campus programs. Therefore, I believe it is critical that the branch campus leadership controls the budget.

The point is that, in any essentially political environment, decisions are based on the "interests" of the various parties. One really can't argue that the academic units shouldn't control curriculum or faculty clearances to teach specific courses. Presumably, they are the experts.

On the other hand, if the branch campus administration controls budget, and the main campus unit can somehow be incentivized to partner, then it becomes much more likely that the branch will receive decent cooperation. By encouraging enrollment growth at the branch, the main campus academic unit benefits, say through some sort of profit sharing or "royalty" paid per student credit hour.

All of this comes back eventually to institutional leadership. If the president, for example, is committed to branch campus growth and the principle of expanding access, then he or she should give the branch campus leadership some element of power (clout) that encourages cooperation, rather than argument.

It can be done. But, as anyone will admit, it doesn't mean that you won't continue to be frustrated in various ways! I hope this general response to your comment is helpful.