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.