Tuesday, March 20, 2012

New Approaches for Branch Campuses: Part 3

To wrap up this brief series on the future of branch campuses, I want to offer a few suggestions to those campus leaders who are prepared to rethink strategy. My recommendations follow from this premise: Branch campuses should base their strategy for growth on the idea that their student audience is most concerned about time to degree and the cost of that degree. (Obviously, the two are related.)

Branches should develop their academic programming and student support services around providing individual attention that helps students reach their goals as quickly and efficiently, as possible. Campuses that thrive will be flexible and reasonable in the application of previously earned credits toward a degree, while making sure that they maintain high standards. (Institutions may lose some students who have clearly unreasonable expectations, but I always maintain that there is a market for quality. Just think carefully and well about what quality means.)

Branches that thrive will emphasize engaged, deep partnerships. Depending on the type of branch, this might involve working closely with high schools around dual credit opportunities, working more closely with the distance learning unit at the main campus, collaborating with community colleges, or offering opportunities such as those provided by Straighterline to help students efficiently complete a requirement. Campuses should learn about and make use of best practices in prior learning assessment, such as CAEL supports through LearningCounts.org.

If it were my call, I’d be spending my money on admissions counselors, financial aid counselors, and academic advisors, along with those learning support services that make a demonstrable difference to success. If the branch is large enough to attract more traditional-aged full-time students, then I might provide a broader range of support services and student life opportunities, but that would be to serve a different audience than the one I’m discussing, here.

On programming, I’d be deeply and completely student oriented. At branches, student demand should drive both course schedules and programs, but I’d also be concerned about average section size in face-to-face classes. To be honest, however, I’d stop offering face-to-face classes, for the most part. I’d concentrate on high quality hybrid and online courses, supported by outstanding support services. In any case, class schedules should be efficient, and we should get over the notion that maximizing course options to meet a specific requirement is important to students. Branch audiences, at least, are more concerned about a clear path to their goals.

To borrow a term, it is time to re-engineer the branch campus, so that it closely aligns with the preferences of the audience it serves. In the process, I suspect leaders will find that less is more: Offering a tighter range of courses and helping students get more credit for work done elsewhere will support creation of higher quality courses and services. Marketing strategies will unfold in natural and compelling messages, and word of mouth will kick in powerfully. Campuses must leverage their physical presence, while embracing the power of technology and more deeply appreciating the preferences of their student audience.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

New Approaches for Branch Campuses: Part 2

For branch campuses to thrive in the newly competitive environment, I believe they have to focus sharply on their mission and on what they do best. Branches provide their home institution with a physical presence in the communities they serve, and they tend to do a good job of engaging with that community, as well as building political support for their institution. They have a history of providing strong support services for students, and they provide ease of access and flexibility for working adults.

In terms of enrollment opportunities, I suspect that the future sweet spot for branch campuses lies in two areas: Partnering with whatever unit is developing and delivering online courses at their home institution, and focusing on the creation of hybrid delivery options. Hybrid delivery compromises some on flexibility, but provides enough structure and support to be appreciated by many students.

Partnering between the online unit and branch campuses can substantially reduce the cost of course development, with learning modules serving both fully online and hybrid options. For the collaboration to make sense, however, there must be a revenue sharing arrangement that is attractive to both partners, and there should be an institutional strategy that defines audiences and coordinates marketing. Branches should be compensated for their role in recruitment and support of online students.

There is strategic advantage to developing a strong portfolio of online courses and programs, then drawing out learning modules from those courses to be used in hybrid programs at branch locations. Fully online programs can serve a national or international audience, maximize flexibility for those who want it, and generate substantial revenue. A regional hybrid strategy can meet the needs of those who prefer more structure, but still want more flexibility than traditional delivery affords.

A regional hybrid approach also expands the service area from which campuses can recruit. Typically, commuter campuses obtain the great majority of their enrollment from people living within 30 miles of the campus. If students only come to campus on a few occasions per term, I’d argue that a radius of 100 miles or more is practical, especially if the campus offers some unique and attractive program or has an especially strong regional brand.

Most importantly, perhaps, continuing to offer some face-to-face courses, some fully online, and some hybrid can serve a branch campus’s mission, even as student preferences evolve. The branch campus leadership should stay close to enrollment data and nimble with regard to the proportion of each type of delivery it offers, as demand shifts.

I don’t know the end game for all of this, but branches need a thoughtful strategy for change, if they intend to compete. I hope the way branches engage with their communities and support their students will continue to be valued and continue to attract enrollment, but over time it won’t trump the advantages created by online and hybrid delivery.

Next time: Some thoughts on how branch campuses can act on their unique opportunities.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

New Approaches for Branch Campuses: Part 1

As I’ve said many times, I believe that demographics, technology, and the preferences of adult learners have created a disruptive environment in higher education. The flexibility provided by online programs meshes well with the preference of adult learners, creating a challenge for traditional institutions.

Unquestionably, the most financially successful application of technology lies with high quality, scalable online programming, accompanied by strong and focused support services, and with aggressive pricing that widens the gap between those programs and the cost of traditional residential campuses. The price gap could be the trigger that bursts the so-called “tuition bubble” and causes the great majority of students to choose nonresidential options.

Given all that, what does the future hold for branch campuses? In my opinion, it depends on how they choose to adapt. Branch campuses provide access and opportunity, and they are located at some distance from the main campus, in order to serve place bound audiences. Historically, this meant that they helped people realize their educational dreams, but as an “innovation,” branches represent a sustaining improvement over the need to relocate in order to pursue a degree. Today, those same audiences can choose online programs from any number of providers.

One significant concern I have is that branches often attempt to replicate the main campus experience, as much as practical. Thus, they have facility costs and provide services that may not only be expensive, but underutilized by students, and with no demonstrable benefit to recruitment and retention. In addition, given that branches were initially created and nurtured from the main campus, I wonder whether institutional leaders will conclude that they should emphasize lower-cost online options to serve place bound students.

For branches, the challenge is to develop a niche that is sufficiently attractive to prospective students, so that they choose the branch option over others. I’ve always said that branch campuses are a unique delivery form of higher education, and it is time they start considering what that implies. At the very least, branches need to be attentive to their expenses and to be more intentional about the assessment of services, not to mention creating a truly student-focused class schedule and making cost effective decisions about the range of course options provided.

My personal opinion is that branches would be well advised to begin emphasizing hybrid delivery of courses and programs. “Hybrid” can refer to a mix of fully online courses with others that meet anywhere from once a week to only two or three times during the term, or it can mean all courses have at least a few face-to-face meetings (or meetings over interactive television). They are hybrid in the sense that they use technology both to enhance learning and to provide flexibility, but they also bring more structure and direct interaction than most fully online programs provide.

In my next post, I will expand on the potential of hybrid delivery at branch campuses.