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.

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