Monday, January 2, 2012

Northeastern University and the Advantages of Branch Campuses

These days, colleges and universities seek new ways to expand their reach and enrollment. Much of the attention goes to creating online courses and programs, and that is understandable. Delivering high quality programs and services, from a single, central location has appeal. As always, executing from a solid business plan is critical.

Nevertheless, there still are times when it makes sense to create branch campuses. Strong branch strategies emphasize partnership, community engagement, and other advantages that come with a physical presence.

Check out a recent New York Times article about a new branch established in Charlotte, NC, by Northeastern University: (You may have to copy and paste the address into your browser.)

I should disclose that I have a modest consulting relationship with Northeastern, and I was quoted in the article, although I had no part in their strategy development and launch decisions. What intrigues me about their strategy, however, is how thoroughly they explored options, before choosing to open a campus in Charlotte.

According to the Times article, Northeastern recognized that, despite remarkable economic growth, Charlotte is underserved at the graduate level. They also noted that many of the people relocating to Charlotte are from the northeast, and that there is a strong presence of Northeastern alumni. Future branches may be added in other metropolitan areas, with Seattle being next on their radar screen.

One of the first marketing lessons I learned is that there is significant value in hanging out a shingle, so people see the evidence of your commitment. Moreover, given a regional strategy, I like Northeastern’s effort to engage with the Charlotte community. Northeastern makes extensive use of co-operative education and internships. It is a research university, and they see opportunities for partnership and research, in Charlotte. Given the absence of other doctoral granting private nonprofits, there is no reason that Charlotte and Northeastern shouldn’t build a strong bond.

Of course, branch campuses bring other advantages, as well. Northeastern is committed to hybrid delivery, and a branch is great for that purpose. Many students still prefer at least some face-to-face contact with instructors and fellow students, and there is some evidence that learning outcomes are strongest with hybrid delivery. Moreover, branches can provide top-notch services, in person or otherwise, as they appreciate local student concerns.

The Northeastern project is unusual, in terms of distance from the main campus, but it clearly draws on the advantage of having a physical presence. Effective strategies require understanding the audience. In this case, there is thoughtful appreciation for market need, brand recognition, and market differentiation.

There are challenges and risks in stretching boundaries, of course. Watch the news and you will see evidence of failed initiatives, as well as successful ones. (Note the special challenges of creating international branches!) Over the next few years, we will see many different strategies, and that may be all to the good for educational access and opportunity.

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