Monday, December 28, 2009

Pursuing Both Traditional and New Audiences at Branch Campuses

The theme of many of my posts over the past year has been that demographics, technology, and the preferences of adult learners are creating a disruptive environment in higher education. I've asserted that, for branches to thrive in the future, they need to orient strongly toward the changes I see coming: More of a focus on adult learners and delivering courses online or in a hybrid/blended form.

What if I'm wrong? The average age of students has decreased at many campuses, and reports are that more students attend full time. What if that trend continues? The cost of residential education means more students will choose community colleges or branch campuses, at least for part of their education, and these students may want to attend in the "traditional" way, coming to campus and taking classes face-t0-face. No doubt, some adults prefer traditional environments and find online courses intimidating.

Students who prefer a traditional approach may want access to services and student life programming, even though they are commuters, not residents. Or, for that matter, more community colleges and branches may add residence halls or apartments, providing students an opportunity that is somewhere between a fully residential, away-from-home experience and a commuter life.

Even if "traditional" branch programming continues to work well, there is no doubt that more people are seeking flexible programs, in the form of online and hybrid courses. These individuals will not come to their local branch, if such courses are not readily available. They will choose from one of the many options available to them. Over time, as students have better and better experiences with these courses, their inherent advantages will draw enrollment away from face-to-face, synchronous courses. Remember, every year, the proportion of adult learners comfortable with technology will expand, as generations age.

However, I'd point to something else as important to consider, right now. The potential students I have been writing about are not attending, today. They are nonconsumers. Specifically, they are mostly adults with some college, but no degree. By definition, they are not responding to your current marketing efforts. Doing more of the same kinds of marketing and recruiting you've always done will continue to attract the people you've always attracted. That means, you are doing a better job of marketing to a declining population. (The demographics are what they are. There are fewer 18-year-olds, but hundreds of thousands of nonconsuming adults, in nearly every state.)

Here's the punch line: If I am completely wrong about your current audience, and the advantages of branch campuses work well into the indefinite future, why not insure your success by targeting nonconsuming adults, as well? These are real people, who will be served by someone.

In a sense, if you expand online and hybrid options, you will have a more diversified portfolio of courses and programs that can aid recruitment and retention, all around. You will do a better job of serving your community, and you will take advantage of your good "brand" to better hold off competition from institutions that have not made a powerful commitment to serve the local population. In short, you will see greater net enrollment and more revenue, supporting still more program expansion in the future.

It is a no-lose proposition, provided you empower a part of your institution to focus intensely on nonconsumers, following the principles of entrepreneurial growth in a disruptive environment. (What you cannot do, successfully, is pursue nonconsumers with the marketing/recruitment techniques that work for your current audience. Offering some online courses, but in a non-programatic way, will not work, either, in my opinion. It isn't about offering some online opportunities, but taking a thoughtful, systematic approach to recruiting and serving a new audience.)

One principle that I rarely see followed in higher education is to manage various programs and audiences as a business might, recognizing that we have multiple lines of business that can be independently pursued. If we pursue multiple, nearly independent program lines, we have a chance of succeeding in all of them. For sure, though, we will be more diversified and likely to see some of our activities thrive, during times when others are struggling. I'll say more about this idea of managing multiple line of business in a future post.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Taking Advantage of Growth at Branch Campuses

So, you lead a branch campus, and enrollment is up. That's a good thing, right? Revenue should be increasing, you'd expect to be adding courses and sections, maybe considering adding to your full-time faculty, perhaps adding support services, and so on.

For a surprsing number of people I encounter, things are more frustrating than that. Some campuses, like ours at Ohio University, are independently funded. They pay an overhead to the main/home campus, which may increase as branch revenue increases, but they are in a good position to invest for more growth. Many others, however, operate on an "expenditure budget," in which they receive an allocation in the same way that main campus academic units probably do. A likely result is that increased branch campus revenue is disproportionately consumed to offset institutional budget challenges. The opportunity to add branch courses and programs, never mind services and faculty, is very limited.

In my opinion, even well-intentioned leaders remain bound by a sense of mission or priority that interferes with a deep understanding of entrepreneurial higher education. I heard a great comment the other day: If you don't understand your market and serve it effectively, you will lose the opportunity to pursue your mission. In the end, no matter how deeply institutions may be committed to their traditional mission, they need to empower units that can generate growth, in order to thrive. To me, that means unleashing the potential of branch campus and online/hybrid programs, among other things.

In these times, I cannot argue that branch campuses should keep all the revenue generated by growth. Branches, by definition, depend on main campus support for their own success. However, if an institution is prepared to invest in branch campus growth, there are some things I encourage and things I discourage.

On the "discourage" side, I would be loathe to invest in more space. Buildings at branches create more infrastructure cost that will hurt their ability to compete against the types of new approaches about which I've written before. To be sure, there are situations where construction makes sense, but the bar should be set very high.

In addition, I would be cautious and thoughtful about adding services. Student support services are critical, but institutions should keep close watch on which services make a difference to their students. If a service contributes to recruitment and retention--and you have the data to document that fact--then it is valuable. Too often, however, campuses invest in services that either go unused or make almost no difference to student success. Don't get caught up in someone's passion for providing a service, in the absence of evidence that the service makes a difference, or because it represents something he or she personally considers to be "part of what a college or university just should do." Keeping a thoughtful, critical eye on services is important to staying competitive, yet cost efficient.

On the positive side, growth creates a wonderful opportunity to expand student options. Students today are shoppers. If you can add sections of courses at different times of day or days of the week; if you can offer some online options, in addition to your traditional classes; if you can offer additional choices on general education courses; all of these may attract or retain still more students. As with services, an efficient, but attractive student-oriented schedule is likely to pay dividends.

What about adding more programs? Well, it depends. In my experience, most degree program additions do not significantly add to enrollment, unless they are specifically attractive to current nonconsumers. So, for example, if you offer an English major and choose to add History, I'm all for it, if you have the resources. However, you probably won't see much net new enrollment from expanding more or less related programs, whereas you will add some cost for courses you weren't previously offering.

On the other hand, if you do not have a Nursing program and you add one--you probably will attract students you currently miss. (Of course, the sheer cost of Nursing courses may not make this a great idea.) Similarly, we have sometimes found it necessary to offer what I call a "surrogate" for the major we really want: say a communication major with a business minor, instead of a specific business major. If growth allows adding the program students most prefer, there should be at least a modestly positive impact on enrollment, and the community service provided will be recognized and appreciated.

Investing in marketing may be the single most important use of new resources. In this area, I include stepping up your market research to support deeper understanding of both your current markets and whatever new opportunities may be out there. Strengthen your web sites, start exploring applications of social networking, and step up how you tell your story. You have an opportunity to expand awareness of your brand, as well as to target-market individual programs. Maybe you can use some money to invest in and take advantage of a quality CRM, so that you can better communicate with prospects. Whatever you do in this area, make sure your decisions are strategic and be serious about assessing the effectiveness of every single activity.

If your campus is growing, I hope you are able to invest to support the growth you've achieved and to encourage still more growth. It is a smart institutional investment, and it can support expanded access and opportunity for students. Make thoughtful, strategic, data-based decisions, however. You still are trying to get at current nonconsumers, and you surely have things to learn about your specific opportunities and the activities that will matter the most.

As always, this can be a golden age for branch campuses, if leaders recognize the trends and changes that students of the future are seeking. Those branches that continue with the same old, same old will see their enrollment start to decline, within the next five years. Growth has given you a chance to ride the wave, so go for it!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Fall Enrollment

I'm intrigued by what I think I'm seeing around enrollment, this fall. I don't have any formal, objective data, yet, so I may be wrong, but it certainly appears that branch campus enrollment is very strong, everywhere I've checked.

For sure, university regional campuses, in Ohio, are up. The five Ohio University campuses increased by more than 1000 students, compared to last year, and the folks around the country with whom I've spoken or corresponded have experienced the same thing. Moreover, nearly everyone is telling me they are up more on FTE than on headcount, which means that students are enrolling in more classes.

I haven't seen any significant news coverage about branches, but clearly community colleges experienced nearly explosive growth. There surely must be exceptions, but reading about increases of 20% or more isn't unusual. I've talked with community college leaders who are struggling mightily to find classroom space and instructors, to deal with the growth.

What about other sectors? How are the smaller, not-necessarily-elite privates doing? My impression is that the story is not as positive. I don't know that there is any general decline, but the big jumps seem rare. On the other hand, the for-profit sector seems to be booming. Almost across the board they are reporting large enrollment growth. Distance learning programs also have continued their rapid enrollment increases.

For a branch person, an interesting question to ask is, "How are main campuses doing?" Again, I'm not sure, but I don't hear or read about truly dramatic increases. In Ohio, a few are down, a number are up, and there are a few institutions with high single-digit increases. I have the impression that urban institutions (read: those with a high percentage of commuter students) may be up more than rural institutions.

It doesn't take 30 years of experience with branch campuses to recognize that some of the growth going on is tied to the economy. Branches and community colleges, in particular, have always been countercyclical to the economy. But this feels like a bigger jump than could be explained just by reference to an economic cycle.

Nothing in what has happened this fall compells anyone to agree with my arguments that we are in a disruptive environment, but it is exactly what one would predict, if we are approaching the tipping point for change in higher education. I've argued that demographics, technology and the preferences of adult learners have created a Christensen-type disruption for higher education. Rapid growth in lower-cost alternatives may reflect the economy, but it may also include deeper realization that the cost of residential higher education is simply getting too high.

Interestingly, there are at least some main campuses experiencing record enrollment this fall, even as other sectors increase dramatically. Again, however, that is consistent with the dynamic of disruptive change, in which existing "products" are doing so well that providers don't see the change that is coming and miss the opportunity to adapt.

I'm not one who believes that residential higher education will disappear. There are too many reasons that young people leave home to go to school. I do believe, however, that most such institutions will become smaller (urban campuses and flagships may be an exception). I also believe that a much higher proportion of young people will spend only one or two years on campus, taking the first part of their undergraduate degrees at branches, community colleges, and online.

The concern about how we may be closing the doors to those with less money doesn't bother me as much as it might some, because I believe there is a deeper trend toward new business models, more flexible online and hybrid programs, and alternative ways of obtaining credentials. There will be more options for people to choose from, and the increasing availability of high quality online courses will be a driver.

Even now, we see many students who enroll in online and traditional courses, at the same time. In fact, I'd bet that one reason there is an increase in FTE over headcount is that more students are picking up an "extra" online course, while taking one or two classroom-based courses.

This is all speculation, I suppose, but I continue to predict that we will see a major shift toward lower cost providers, more flexible programs, and changes in how institutions think about everything from marketing strategies, student services and student life options, and the role of faculty members in instruction.

A scenario I can imagine is that an increasing proportion of young students choose to spend a year or two at a local community college. Some young people, but the great majority of adult learners choose online or blended programs. Young and older, if located near an urban university, choose to continue commuting, if they don't go with a distance learning program. Flagships and elite privates use their powerful pull to maintain or increase the enrollment of recent high school graduates, in the face of declining numbers in that demographic. Somewhere, there will be smaller privates and a number of public universities that fail to distinguish themselves in a way that will allow them to maintain the revenue stream that is required to support their personnel and infrastructure costs. In this last group, then, there will be winners and losers.

I'm not sure where the for-profits fit in this picture, but I think it will depend on their business model. Right now, the for-profits tend to be a high tuition alternative. I don't see that working well, down the line. If they can develop a model that allows them to compete on price, however, then I suspect their market responsiveness will allow them to continue to grow. That isn't great news for the institutions I see as being threatened.

Next month, I will return to a discussion of enrollment growth at branches, to offer some suggestions on how campuses can most effectively take advantage of growth to expand access and opportunity still further. I'd love to see branches prosper in the "new environment," but it won't be business, as usual, if they do.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Building on Strengths at Branch Campuses

I think often about the implications of so-called "strengths-based leadership." A key element of focusing on strengths is that we talk and worry less about our deficits than about how we can release the capacity in individuals and organizations, so that the work environment is more positive, and the sense of excitement and accomplishment grows.

Recently, I listened to someone interviewing for a very senior administrative position talk about his commitment to being an effective leader. He told us that he had taken a workshop on leadership that included an assessment of various leadership qualities and provided a list of how those qualities applied to him, from strongest to weakest. He then went out and got training on the three qualities that were most weak, so he could get better in those areas.

Clearly, he thought he had done something significant and, perhaps, even a bit courageous. I thought it was a remarkable waste of time and energy. Why would anyone do that? Whatever success he has had is almost certainly about his strengths, not his weaknesses. From the perspective of building on strengths, he'd be much better off understanding what works well for him, how he can apply his talents most effectively, and how he can enlist others, with different strengths, to bring balance to the organization.

When I think about branch campuses, several thoughts related to releasing capacity come to mind. First, a successful branch campus, offering a good work environment, will encourage faculty and staff to build on their strengths. Leaders will hire carefully, seeking people who will thrive at a branch campus, embracing the mission, rather than feeling as if they should be somewhere "more significant."

Positive branch faculty will recognize the challenge of working with place bound students and seek ways to broaden students' horizons, support their achievement, and celebrate the drama of their success. Given a chance, students on branch campuses become our best ambassadors, sharing how their education changed their lives.

A campus with a positive sense of itself will engage meaningfully with the local community, seeking those intersections where institutional possibilities line up with community need. Engaged partnership will allow all of the partners to learn from each other, create synergies through their respective strengths, and have an impact that none of them could have, alone.

Because I believe that most branch campuses can thrive only if they find their special, particular niche, I also believe they need to be attentive to which courses, programs, and services make the greatest difference to student success. Again, it is a matter of building on strengths, rather than trying to do too much and spreading resources too thin.

If branches build on the strengths of their mission, context, and people, they can create exceptionally positive opportunities. On the other hand, almost everything about the branch environment can be turned into a negative, and people can become more cynical and fatalistic, than empowered and creative. I've seen both, and I am convinced that it is a matter of individual and collective choice.

Regardless of whether a campus cultivates a positive environment or not, the problems and frustrations of academic life will come around. The difference between a positive and a negative environment affects how people work together, share leadership in a way that releases, rather than suppresses talent, and maintains confidence that problems can be overcome.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Branch Campus Growth is International

One of the challenges faced by people associated with branch campuses is the lack of literature or other obvious resources to help identify best practices, mistakes to avoid, or typical challenges. As a result, branch campuses come in a wide range of "flavors," around structure, programs, budgets, and mission. I hope this blog and the conferences organized by NABCA and RBCA help provide a sense of connection for people in the branch campus world.

In this context, I thought it would be worthwhile to draw attention to my impression that the number of branch campuses is growing, not only in the United States, but around the world. To be sure, there are the well publicized examples of American institutions launching international branches, usually in Asia or the Middle East. However, I am most interested in the simple reality that universities and colleges around the world often create branches, within their own country, in a manner that appears to be very similar to what happens in the U.S.

I have been fortunate to visit branch campuses in Mexico, Canada, Russia, and Hong Kong, and I have met individuals from Australia, Mexico, and other countries, who attended NABCA or RBCA. The issues faced in those countries seem similar to issues that arise here, but I don't know that to be a fact. There's a nice research opportunity for someone doing a thesis or dissertation: Comparing main campus and branch campus operations in different countries!

Recently, I visited campuses of the University of Northern British Columbia. It was an outstanding experience. There weren't any stunning surprises, during my visit, but the differences from my own experience were enough to be both interesting and engaging. Like most institutions, the UNBC story had unique elements, particular challenges, and highly recognizable points of view, both from branch and central campus folks.

Beyond supporting the general call for more research on branch campuses, I want to suggest that one might get especially interesting perspectives, by looking at branches in different countries, while "controlling" for as many dimensions, as possible: How would a branch in Mexico be similar to or different from one in the U.S., if the institutions are of similar size, in similarly populated areas, and so on. Are there differences in how they use technology? Do they attract similar or different student markets? Are main campus-branch issues similar? Can we learn things that will help us be more effective at our own campuses?

A quite different idea would be to partner with a branch in another country on courses or programs. A business course could use technology to have students in both countries working together on an international business problem. Guest lectures could be provided from both locations. Study abroad opportunities, often a challenge for branch students, could be relatively brief and intensive, with students and faculty members interacting by technology, both before and after the visit. I'd guess that branches from different countries could have a lot of fun, through partnership, as well as create outstanding learning opportunities and grow in cultural awareness. I know these things have happened, and sometimes they have been difficult to make work, but it seems well worth the effort.

In other aspects of my work, I've had some wonderful opportunities in the international arena, and they have enriched my life, enormously. In today's world, not only is it important to develop a global (heck, just a nonparochial) perspective, but technology can make it possible to do things that could not have been done effectively, just a few years ago.

Branch campus faculty, students and administrators have a natural platform to initiate a relationship. Go for it! Then, let me know how it works out. Or, better yet, come to NABCA or RBCA and tell everyone about it.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

On Generations and Opportunities

I've gotta say, I feel really good about being a Boomer, at this point in my life. I am enjoying a sense of opportunity and energy, as well as self-discovery, that is bringing me closer to values and goals that were important to me years ago. I can afford to make some work and lifestyle choices that would have been more difficult in the past, and I am better able to accept certain things and simply refuse to accept others.

As I wrote in my last post, I'm also enjoying the work and personal connections I have with younger people. Maybe it is drawing on the teacher in me, but I also feel as if I learn a lot from them, and as if we have considerable fun. I'm encouraged about the workplace of the future, because I see an interesting alignment of values that, if properly managed, should yield highly effective organizations.

I haven't yet figured out how to articulate the potential I see, but I can point to some elements of the opportunity. Younger generations seem to have a better sense of work-play balance than Boomers have had. Given that many Boomers now want to find a more flexible approach to work and life, perhaps we can see the wisdom of younger perspectives. Effective cross-generational work teams had better make time to laugh and play!

An interesting aspect of "flexibility" ties to work hours. Many Boomers want to work part time or seasonally. Project work may be attractive to some, but for me, I'm more interested in the social connection and the pleasure that comes with continuing work relationships. I want to be somewhere warm in the winter, and I want to take great vacations from time to time. I've never made a huge distinction between work and other interests, and that quality is serving me well. The opportunity to set my own hours, whether early in the morning (not likely) or late in the evening is very attractive, as is the idea of working like a demon for a few weeks, then heading off on some personal adventure for a few more.

Young people tend to share aspects of my attitude. The old "8-5" is tough on younger folks. It isn't that they are unwilling to work hard, but they want to have as much control as possible over exactly when, where and how they work. In fact, "control" is a big part of what both Boomers and Millenials are looking for, but it is control over their own choices about time and projects.

Millenials, especially, are motivated more by a sense of passion for whatever they are doing than by direction or instructions from higher up. I like that, and I've seen both Generation X-types and Millenials work with a level of commitment that I find impressive. Working with passion! That seems like an excellent way to live.

In the reading I've done, and the limited personal experience I've had, I'm struck by the notion that Millenials are looking for respect and for people to listen to their ideas. Sound like the 60's and 70's generation? Sharing ideas and building powerful group energy around important projects that people care about sounds terrific, as well.

Boomers can bring their stories and experience, but we also can lose our accumulated doubts and cynicism in the presence of young people who still believe they can change the world. Note that community is hugely important to young people, both their work "community" and the larger community within which they live. So that aspect for some Boomers, of wanting to change directions and become engaged in volunteer or part-time work connected to social service agencies and the like, is entirely consistent with how Millenials view community development. It is less about title, hierarchy, or even pay than about making a difference.

I wonder if this also connects to our expanded lifespans? A friend who just turned 60 talks about choosing direction for the "second half of her adult life." If we are going to be around for 100 years, then the sense of time urgency should change. Why retire at 60, or even 70, if you feel young and vital and expect to be around for awhile, yet? By the same token, if you are 25 or 30 and expect to have another 70 years or more to go, why be in a hurry about education, career, or relationships? Maybe we can all make better choices if we see our lives unfolding over longer periods of time.

So much of what is written about younger generations is negative. For example, just thinking about the previous paragraph, some are talking about "extended adolescence" in Millenials and the need to press them to "grow up." Really? Is it extended adolescence or simply an awareness of more time to live, allowing less urgency to "get on with it"? (I'm not sure on this one. There are times when I do feel as if young people are remarkably superficial, moments away from when they impress me with their knowledge and poise, when it matters.)

I haven't tried to tie this post specifically to branch campuses, but it is easy enough to see the implications, wherever you choose to look. Branches are historically very engaged in community, and there are opportunities here to help build community connections, effective cross-generational teams, and the like. There are possible implications for how we staff campuses and meet demand for instructors. Credit or noncredit certificate programs could be built around cross-generational opportunities, and so on.

We actually have very little choice but to find ways to work together. Boomers aren't ready to leave the stage, but we need the Millenials and Xers to make things run. I've got a feeling that some organizations and communities will figure out how to make it soar and others won't. Just as occurs in disruptive environments, there will be winners and those who don't know what hit them. I've got to admit, I like that idea. I plan to be one of the people having a great time and contributing what I can.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Encore Careers May Provide Excellent Opportunities for Branch Campuses

I think it is time to change directions. In the disruptive environment that I believe higher education faces, an important question goes to how we can best position our institutions for success. The good news is that there are relatively new ways of thinking about organizations and organizational change that may be entirely consistent with the impact of technology, a higher proportion of adult learners, and concerns about the cost of traditional education.

These new ways of thinking emerge from positive psychology, an approach that focuses on individual and organizational strengths, rather than deficits, with the goal of thriving or flourishing, not simply surviving or enduring. There are a number of topics I can explore here, but I want to start with something that is close to my own heart: The implication of the Baby Boomer Generation, as it moves past 60 and toward what we think of as "traditional" retirement age. Some of what I will share can be explored in greater detail in an excellent book, by Marc Freedman (2007), called Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life.

A key point is that the idea of "retiring to leisure" is a relatively new notion, tied to the creation of Social Security and corporate pensions. Before, say, the 1930's, most people simply worked until they died, and they tended to die at a younger age than most of us, today. Bluntly, many Boomers can't afford to retire, and many of us who can, don't want to. It is important for us to feel productive, although how we want to approach work may change.

I won't go into more detail on the attitudes and needs of Boomers, when it comes to work, but I do want to share some potentially good news: Employers need us to stay engaged. The immediately following generation is too small to adequately fill employment needs, and the generation after that, although large, is not yet experienced enough for some roles.

Boomers looking at so-called encore careers may want to work in roles similar to the ones they've filled in the past, or they may want to change directions. Almost certainly, they will put a premium on flexibility, working part-time, seasonally, as consultants or project specialists, etc. Consider, for example, a professor, who may not want to teach full-time or serve on deadening committees, but would love to teach part-time and, perhaps, do some writing.

Boomers bring experience, wisdom (one hopes), and love to tell their stories. It turns out that the generation just entering the workplace, often called Generation Y or Millenials, enjoy hearing our stories, value flexibility, and share many of the social values of the Boomer generation. (Not really a huge surprise. Millenials are our kids!)

How might an appreication of generations impact an institution of higher education, and most especially, a branch campus that excels at serving adult learners or provides a wide range of certifications, online and blended courses, and highly competitive tuition?

First of all, there are "business" opportunities here. Many Boomers will seek education and training to develop skills or pursue long-delayed interests in learning. Because they value flexibility, they will be attracted to blended or hybrid programs that allow them to travel, be somewhere warm in the winter, or whatever suits their lifestyle. How we package courses and use technology for delivery will be important. (Note that the Millenials are digital natives and this is their natural environment, already.)

Although the personnel office might classify a retired professor, teaching part-time as an adjunct, it isn't quite what we usually think of as an adjunct. Their experience and approach to the classroom may be quite different, and we have found that many of these faculty members also embrace technology in their teaching, for the flexibility it provides. Retirees from other fields may enjoy teaching, as well. So staffing scalable types of courses that reach out to new audiences may be less difficult than a lot of people imagine.

Retired administrators and faculty members may be very interested in working on special projects or returning to work at especially busy times of the year, reducing cost to the institution, while retaining needed expertise. Mentoring programs with younger colleagues may pay huge dividends, as well.

My point here is that there is still a lot of juice in Baby Boomers. Most of us have far too many years yet to live to retire to leisure. Designing jobs or roles and providing appropriate educational preparation may be a wonderfully welcome opportunity.

There is one more point I'd like to make: I have found working with younger staff to be energizing and fun, for me. If we think of generational differences as another example of diversity, there is much for all of us to learn and to celebrate. There is a compatibility that suggests building cross-generational work teams may be a powerful way to engage faculty and staff, yielding a dynamic, enthusiastic, creative force that will powerfully affect an institution's competitiveness in a disruptive, rapidly changing environment.

Friday, May 15, 2009


If you are willing to accept what I've written about changes coming to branch campuses, then what should you do to make sure that your campus thrives? Timing is important here, as part of a strategy to respond to emerging competition.

So, let's start with a target year, in which I believe most adult learners, at least, will be choosing online and blended programs over traditional, campus-based programs. That year will be 2014, five years from now. How do I know that? Well, I don't, to be honest. Christensen mentions 2014 as a tipping point for online education, but in a different context. I've seen other references to that approximate time, and it simply feels about right to me.

The most important reason to choose 2014 is that it is far enough away to allow responsive institutions to make adjustments, but it is close enough to (I hope) raise anxiety, if you aren't engaging, yet. A good friend, with good judgment, said to me recently that he believes online education will be the dominant mode of delivery for adult learners in about 10 years. I think that is definitely much too far out. If you agree with my friend, please let me know. I want to come after your students!

I have also heard a number of people say things like, "We just aren't ready, yet. We can't afford to develop the classes, our faculty are resistant, and our audience prefers traditional classes." I understand that reaction, and most of it may even be valid, but it could indicate that your campus is going to be in trouble, by 2014.

To me, 2014 suggests that there is still time to start development of courses and programs in a strategic way. If you aren't active, yet, it will take you two or three years to get things rolling. A lot of institutions are ahead of you, but a lot aren't. The days of just putting something out there and generating lots of revenue are over, anyway. The "second wave" is coming, which will be much more niche oriented, focusing on high quality services, using technology in ways that are engaging and highly supportive, and making use of new business models that are keyed to this disruptive environment.

If you wait two or three years, then start development, you will be out of luck. Other providers will be in your market, and if they are providing the right programs and services, at an attractive price, there is no reason for students to switch. Most recruiting will occur by word of mouth and other low-cost marketing strategies, making it difficult for you to attract attention, especially from current nonconsumers.

Here is my advice: If you are just getting started in the development of online and blended programs, then create a team that will get up every day thinking about the audiences, programs and services that need to be developed. Study other institutions, to consider how they are approaching things. Spend a lot of time on the Internet, just looking at sites, mining them for ideas.

Continue being a cheerleader for your existing programs. Institutions don't necessarily need a lot of money to make this transition, but I strongly advise reinvesting any new revenue from outreach or branch programs in the further development of those programs. Further, you need a revenue sharing model that provides incentives for academic units to participate. If you can keep some staff focused on taking care of your current students, and on prospective students who resemble them, then you will be giving yourself time to develop the new programs and services that will attract nonconsumers.

Make sure you and all the other people involved in new program development are concentrating on nonconsumers. It isn't the students you currently serve and understand that are key. It is the students who are going to competitors or not enrolling at all that are the long-term target. As part of this focus, make sure you understand which programs cause the ears of nonconsumers to perk up, as well as which services they find valuable and how they want to engage with you (through email, IM, telephone hot line, etc.).

I'm expecting services to be even more important in the future, because you have to be very cost conscious and prepared to pass reduced costs on to students. No stadiums, no library, no health center, no student union, if your target audience isn't interested. If your existing students value these things, then that's great, but for the new audiences, you are seeking to be competitive on cost. These folks are much less likely to believe that your program is better than someone else's because it costs more. On the other hand, if your program is a better fit for their interests, and your services have a reputation for excellence, then they probably will pay at least a little more than competitors charge.

Finally, rethink geography. Branches often have a defined service area for their traditional programs. With online and blended programs, however, distance is less of a barrier. If most commuter students see 30 miles as approaching the limit of how far they will drive, 50 or 100 miles is no big deal for courses that meet on a limited number of occasions, during the term. One might think that fully online programs have no geographic limitations, but in my opinion that probably does depend on brand recognition and the uniqueness of your program. It may be difficult, for example, to differentiate your online AA degree from someone else's, when so many are available, at comparable prices.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Looking to the Future

When I wrote the history of Ohio University's commitment to outreach, I was struck by the realization that we had changed our approach over time, as technology (especially) evolved. We used trains and street cars, paper-based correspondence, interactive television, etc. Eventually, we established our five branch campuses, each of which has its physical facilities, resident faculty, and strong student services. I think it is a proud history that demonstrates sincere commitment to expand opportunity.

What really made an impact on my thinking, however, was the recognition that my own career very nearly matched the history of branch campuses, in Ohio. Most of Ohio's campuses were created between 1966 and 1971; I arrived at Ohio State Mansfield in 1976. For me, the branches have always existed, but the fact is, as illustrated by the Ohio University story, they are a relatively recent part of a much longer history of outreach and access.

I don't know whether the history of other branch campuses can be placed in a series of progressive steps to create access, but the Ohio history does raise the question that, if there were vehicles for creating access before the development of branches, why couldn't new vehicles emerge in the future? It's about the mission, not the branch campus, per se.

Of course, faculty and staff working on a branch campus won't necessarily see it this way, because their careers and professional commitments are tied to the existance of the branch. Nevertheless, given the impact of new applications of technology and the preferences of adult learners, it is worthwhile to ask what might lie ahead. I believe branch campuses represent a "technology" that is changing, and some branches will seize the opportunity and do well, whereas others will deny that change is necessary and resist reasonable expectations of future students.

More and more research is showing that adult learners prefer online or blended/hybrid programs, which give them the flexibility they require for maintaining family and job responsibilities. They also are value shoppers, seeking the program they believe will advance their careers, at a price that is attractive. New business models, such as I've described in earlier posts, that deliver high quality, scalable programs and focused services, but reduce overhead and marketing costs, could do well with tuition and fees that are much lower than is required to maintain a traditional campus, with its buildings, libraries, extensive services, and high personnel costs.

There is a saying about times of change that the train is leaving the station. You can be on the train or on the platform, but either way, the train is leaving. Change is happening in higher education, and those institutions that fail to understand the new dynamic will struggle more and more. Those that understand how to combine the advantages of a campus with the market demands of adult learners, study how to control costs and focus course offerings, and target niche opportunities that can grow virally, will do very well.

I believe this outreach train already is rolling. I'm excited about the possibilities, because there is enormous creative energy in many new initiatives. The tired complaints that online learning can never match face-to-face instruction is blown away by new programs that create highly engaging, challenging learning opportunities, while providing new ways for students to interact with each other and with their instructors. The potential to bring tuition down to levels that open doors for current nonconsumers promises to expand access in ways that can transform more lives than ever. Rewards will go to institutions that are creative and forward looking, and that suits me just fine. What a ride lies ahead!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Branch Campus Life, Volume 2

I neglected to publish any posts here, since August! I taught a course in the fall term, but more importantly, I've been exploring more deeply some ideas that are mentioned in the last few posts I wrote.

I've also been considering my own professional interests and what my next steps might be, looking forward to an "encore" career, when I move on from my current position. It is interesting to be a relatively early "boomer," still with plenty of energy and ideas, but eager to do things that could take me in a new direction. In this post, I want to comment on my own perspectives.

First, when I think about what can most quickly get my creative juices flowing, I recognize that I most enjoy what I will call strategic change management. I'm not so big on formal strategic planning, although I can do it. Rather, I enjoy gathering information, talking with people, seeking connections, and bringing a strategic perspective to the change process.

Over the past six months, I've given several presentations that allowed me to explore the future, from a variety of perspectives. I've come to believe that demographic shifts, applications of technology in higher education, and the preferences of adult learners are going to profoundly change much of higher education. As a result, I've become more focused on adult learners and distance education, as well as newly emerging business models, to get a picture of what is coming.

As I've written before, I believe we are in what Christensen would call a "disruptive environment," and because of that, the solutions to our current challenges need to be quite different than what we've done in the past. It is exciting to consider the possibilities, and it is that excitement that makes me most want to stay involved in higher education. I don't want just to observe what goes on, but to be part of it.

A second area of emerging interest for me is the development of cross-generational work teams. More is being written about how boomers are likely to stay in the workplace and employers need them, if only because the generations behind us can't fill the demand for employees. As I've spent more of my time, in a more attentive way, with younger c0lleagues, I've begun to realize how much can be gained, if we appreciate each other's contributions. Finding ways to link younger and less-young people, in the same work group, and in a manner that encourages respect and creativity, may yield a competitive advantage for an organization.

Finally, related to the cross-generational teams, I've become very interested in positive psychology, especially in the form of what is called Appreciative Inquiry (AI). AI provides a way of approaching change processes that can yield a sense of possibilities that is quite different than traditional problem solving approaches to change. It changes how change occurs, and linking it to cross-generational teams may be especially rewarding.

So, for me, seeking a more positive, creative approach to working with colleagues of all ages, in an environment that demands new solutions, is encouraging. In higher education, as we look at applications of technology, especially to serve nontraditional learners in new ways, there are implications galore for branch campuses. My guess is that there will be winners and losers, in the sense that some institutions will understand the new environment and embrace it, whereas others will not understand and will resist. Thinking critically about new ideas, of course, is not the same as resistance to new ideas, and the risk involved is higher than in the past. I'd like to help interested people and campuses find ways to overcome the risk, expand their impact, and thrive in the new environment.

My intention is to publish posts more frequently, at least for awhile. I will try to maintain a context that is relevant to branch campuses, but honestly, my interests have become broader than branches, so I see them as part of a creative approach to the future, yet reflecting deeper changes that have other implications, as well.