Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Some things to consider:

·      Traditional residential campuses face overwhelming deferred maintenance, to the point that the challenge may be literally insurmountable for many institutions.
·      Competing for students has produced enormous institutional debt, in order to have state-of-the-art residence halls, fitness centers, and student centers.  The cost of technology and technical support are a challenge everywhere.  Many institutions spend millions of dollars per year on athletic programs, with highly questionable return on that investment.
·      Marketing/recruiting costs grow higher, as institutions attempt to draw prospective students away from competitors.  In other words, institutions are fighting to maintain class size, in the face of a declining 18-year-old demographic.  Private nonprofits continue to increase the level of discounting, in order to fill classes.
·      People can argue about tuition and student loan bubbles, but the cost of attendance is problematic, and defenders of tuition increases offer tortured justification or blame cuts in state funding.  It doesn’t matter what the explanation is, because good alternatives are developing rapidly.
·      Administrators tend to shield faculty from financial and political realities, with the result that faculty members are understandably confused or angry, when they are told that the model no longer works, teaching loads are inadequate, or their institutions are forced to rely on lower-paid adjuncts in order to support all the items in the bullets above.

So what are the solutions?

·      Many institutions are paying closer attention to retention.  That’s a good thing.
·      Programing and services will become more focused and improve over time.  That also is a good thing.  However, this has to come from a student-centered, learning outcomes point of view and not just an attempt to reduce costs.
·      We can hope to increase the proportion of 18-year-olds who go to college, or who come to our particular institution, but the pricing/debt issues suggest that the trend will go toward attending community colleges, university branches, and online institutions.  University administrators will find it very difficult to balance a budget, without first- and second-year students.
·      We can recruit more international students, more adult learners, and (for publics) more out-of-state students.  I doubt that this will be an adequate solution, because institutions either won’t adapt their services to these audiences, losing out to more student-centered competitors, or they will find that the cost of support is excessive, given the continuing needs of their traditional audience.
·      Virtually all institutions will expand online offerings, and that could attract new enrollment.  However, the most successful online programs will be highly scalable and offered at attractive prices.  Over a few years, enrollment will tend to consolidate at some institutions and move away from others.  Quality student services will be key.

This isn’t prophecy.  It is the obvious conclusion from watching trends across the country, combined with my belief that we are in a disruptive environment, not simply a challenging phase in a funding cycle.  For those of us who genuinely care about access and opportunity, the end result may be exciting, creative, and encouraging.  To be sure, the effects of change will be different in different sectors of higher education.

If I were leading a branch campus, I’d be thinking about how to most effectively position programs and services to appeal to students for whom cost and time to degree are critical.  I’d work toward using hybrid delivery for nearly all classes.  I’d try to negotiate a revenue sharing arrangement, such that we could re-invest and expand course options, as we grow.  Well-run branches have many advantages that main campuses cannot match.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Distance Learning Administrators Conference

Last month, I had the honor and pleasure of presenting the closing keynote address at the Distance Learning Administrators Conference (DLA), sponsored by the University of West Georgia.  I am grateful to Melanie Clay for the invitation, and to Janet Gubbins, for her help and support in making things go smoothly.

This year’s conference was held on Jekyll Island, GA, a terrific location I had not visited in nearly 20 years.  You can find information about the conference and program at http://www.westga.edu/~distance/dla/, and I believe they plan to use the same venue, next year.

My presentation was titled, “Challenging the Status Quo.” I argued that established institutions are especially at risk in a disruptive environment, because their assumptions, processes, and perspectives make meaningful innovation difficult to achieve.  Established institutions are built to maintain the status quo, not turn it upside down.  Incremental improvements are their strength.

Challenging the status quo requires a different mindset.  When the goal is to attract new student audiences, existing practices are nearly guaranteed to be off the mark.  For that reason, developing a unit dedicated to innovation is typically the best approach.   Innovation teams call for bringing together the right mix of talents and experience, then giving members the time and opportunity to become immersed in their projects.

If you are interested in seeing the PowerPoint slides, you can find them at http://www.westga.edu/~distance/dla/concurrentsessions_2012.php#mon.  On this page, you will find titles and descriptions for all of the conference presentations. Many of the presentations have links to other documents, as well.  Scroll to the bottom of the page for the link to my slides.

I encourage my branch campus friends to consider attending DLA (in addition to attending NABCA or RBCA, of course).  Branch campus conferences these days include a lot of discussion about online/distance learning, but I found it valuable to spend time with a group specifically focused on that topic.  I continue to believe that branch campuses and online programs can strengthen one another through collaborative partnerships.  Indeed, I doubt that branches can thrive in the future, without providing online and hybrid options for their students.

Most institutions would be wise to develop a comprehensive strategy for reaching out to potential students.  Broadly, this might include a more or less traditional approach on their main/residential campus, and a hybrid approach at branch campuses to serve a broader region for which their brand is especially strong.  In that context, a focused set of fully online programs that meet the needs of those for whom maximum flexibility is the first priority, or that attract enrollment in programs that are especially distinctive or that serve a relatively unique audience, completes the strategy.

In addition to DLA, the folks at the University of West Georgia also publish The Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, which you can find at http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/.  The Journal is both interesting and free, so check it out!