Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A More or Less Local Story

In this post, I want to share my perspective on the development of branch campuses at Ohio University. It draws on a piece I wrote a few years ago for a book celebrating our bicentennial, and it illustrates how the context in which a university views its mission can impact creation and development of branches.

Our branches developed out of a long-standing commitment to serve a rural, under-educated region of Ohio. Founded in 1804, the University began outreach programs in a systematic way by creating an "extension division," in 1909. The division offered classes in scores of locations (more than 70) around rural Southeastern Ohio.

My favorite story of those days is that we actually hired three faculty members in 1914, who spent their week (Monday morning through Saturday morning) traveling by train and street car to deliver courses in a number of towns. In 1924, we added to the live courses by becoming the only public university in Ohio to offer correspondence courses. Correspondence (now called Independent Study), continues to thrive, in part because of incarcerated students, who do not have access to the Internet.

Building on this experience, we established an evening division in Portsmouth and Zanesville, Ohio, in 1939. The evening division program was intended to offer a broader range of courses, allowing students to complete two years of study. Given that there was a limited pool of funding for colleges and universities, presidents of other universities objected strongly to the perceived attempt by Ohio University to grab more of the money. After just a year, the Evening Division closed.

However, in 1946, we returned to the idea of an evening division, this time opening three centers, in Chillicothe, Portsmouth, and Zanesville. The rationale this time was to serve returning World War II veterans, by offering the first two years of education, through programs at high schools, reducing pressure on our main campus infrastructure. Our president persuaded the governor that this was a short-term solution and that the program would be phased out, when the backlog had been met. We at Ohio University date the founding of our branch campuses from this time.

By the early 1950's, enrollment fell to fewer than five hundred students. However, the communities being served made a strong pitch to keep their "branches," so with agreement from the governor, the program continued. In fact, additional branches were opened in Belmont County (near St. Clairsville), Lancaster, and Ironton. Eventually (an interesting story in itself), our Portsmouth branch became independent and developed into Shawnee State University. The other five continue to operate, as branch (regional) campuses, to this day.

By the middle-1960's, there was a clear demand for daytime programs in the branch campus communities. At about that time, Ohio Governor James Rhodes made a (famous in Ohio) speech, in which he asserted that there should be a state-supported institution of higher education within 30 miles of every Ohio citizen. In 1966, we opened our first dedicated buildings, and true campuses were launched.

(As an aside, there are now 23 university branch campuses in Ohio, affiliated with 8 universities. All were founded as two-year feeders to their main campuses, most in the mid-60's to early 70's. Most now offer at least some baccalaureate programs, and some offer limited graduate program opportunities. Combined enrollment at the Ohio University branches exceeds 7000 students.)

There is a bit more to our story. In 1985, our campuses helped fund the creation of a system of microwave towers, to allow delivery of live, fully interactive televised courses, usually from the main campus to the branches. Later we moved to other technologies, but I've always believed that our experience with correspondence and with interactive television gave us valuable knowledge about using technology to expand access in a cost effective way.

Through the years, branch campuses and our other extension/outreach/continuing education efforts sometimes were part of a single administrative unit and sometimes were not. Presently, we are not joined, except at the level of the Provost. My personal role, after supervising a combined unit for eight years or so, is with the development of distance learning programs, rather than with the branches, themselves. I mention this fact, because it may have implications for how I think about the whole outreach situation.

Writing a history of what we then called Regional Higher Education for the bicentennial book left me feeling proud of our long commitment to providing access to higher education. I felt that we had used the technology available to us to bring education to place bound individuals. Whether faculty members rode trains, served in residence on branch campuses, or used correspondence and the microwave system to reach students, it all was for the purpose of expanding access.

That leads to a question of whether branches of the type we have would be established today, with technology having evolved to new levels. Or, put more ominously, should we consider closing branches or at least reducing our investment in them? My answer is that we probably could not afford to create the type of branches we have, in the limited populations centers we serve, but the fact that we have them is an enormously valuable resource that needs to adapt to new conditions.

Not surprisingly (given that I am writing the posts) our branches fit nicely within the idealized branch category I described earier. We have 40 or so resident faculty at most campuses, offer a relatively full range of services, and have dedicated facilities. The whole operation earns and spends about $60 million per year. The branches pay an overhead to the main campus and also engage in some profit sharing with academic units.

Given the high cost of residential higher education, it is a great benefit to the communities we serve that many people can attend our commuter campuses and receive high quality instruction, benefit from a wide range of services, and enjoy a campus environment, without paying the higher tuition and living costs at a residential campus. We've seen considerable growth in full-time enrollment, and a decrease in the average age of students, suggesting that the campuses fill a need for both young and more mature students.

On the other hand, the campuses are relatively expensive to operate, with their facility costs, resident faculty, and relatively large staffs. That's why it would be difficult to establish such campuses today, as state funding declines and tuition caps are commonplace.

Somewhat coincidentally, we developed two facilities that I call outreach centers, in Pickerington and Proctorille, Ohio. Both are administered as "twigs" of branch campuses and give us access to larger population centers. Enrollment, especially at Pickerington, which is a Columbus suburb, has grown rapidly, with only modest investment in marketing. Faculty are very complimentary about the teaching environment and the staff support, and the cost of operation is quite modest. The facilities support a more limited mission than those of a full-service campus, there are no resident faculty, and staffing is limited to what is required to support faculty and students. From a financial point of view, it is a great concept.

As they move forward, I'm confident that the branch campuses will continue to develop and to meet an important mission for place bound students. However, the centers and our distance education programs will likely, in my opinion, be the source of the greatest growth and increased financial contribution to the University. To me, online or blended courses and programs reflect the next stage in our commitment to use the technology available to us to expand access, although in today's "flat world," the service region may be quite a lot larger than Southeastern Ohio.

All this leaves me wondering about the story at other universities or community colleges. What is the broad context for development of branches in various locations by different institutions? I'd be pleased to hear those stories through comments on the blog or email directly to me.


M. Rags said...

Dr. Bird:

Thank you for doing this blog--it is a huge help for me personally. First-I met you last year in Couer d'Alene (and I am sure you met too many people to remember). I am a community college branch manager in Washington State. But more importantly and relavently to your blog, I am doctoral student who's research emphasis is community college branch campus relationships-with a specific focus on leadership challenges.

Many of your insights and comments will be helpful to me in providing support to the contentions I have brought forward! Thank you!

Mari Ragland-Green River Community College-Kent Washington

Dr. Charles Bird said...

Wow! That's very nice, Mari. If you are able to come to the NABCA conference this year, please make sure we get a chance to talk more. If you can't come, I'd enjoy chatting some on the telephone. One of the challenges to me is to understand what is similar and different for community college branches, compared to university branches.