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.