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.