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!

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