Monday, November 26, 2012

Competition for Established Branch Campuses

I love competition and the challenge of growing enrollment and budgets.  I enjoy all the elements, at least as I’ve experienced them.  Marketing releases lots of creative energy, and the challenge of continuously improving institutional processes appeals to the puzzle solver in me.  I also believe that branches tend to do best when they develop strong internal and external partnerships, and partnership development has been one of my most enjoyable experiences.

In this context, I’ve been thinking about the competitive pressures faced by those branch campuses that have been around for a while.  For several generations, institutions created branch campuses as a vehicle to expand access and draw additional enrollment.  I’ve often said it is a holy mission, providing opportunity to people who otherwise would not be able to realize their educational dreams.

These branches tended to be in small cities or either in the suburbs or the downtown area of cities, depending on where the main campus was located.  For decades, the practical limits of commuting distance meant that a branch, or any other commuter campus, could recruit effectively over about a 30-mile radius.  Sometimes, branches and other institutions have overlapping circumferences, but until recently, most campuses had relatively clear service areas.

It’s not that way anymore.  At this point, I hear people talking about two challenging trends.  One is the emergence of fully online or very limited residency programs that blow away any concern about a 30-mile commuting distance.  As I’ve written before, I think branches can compete against fully online programs, but it requires adjusting some of their traditional practices.

The other challenge is more complicated to describe.  The trend seems to be that many institutions are developing outreach centers or sites that are relatively low cost, but intended to draw new enrollments to specific programs.  One example involves small private non-profits that are fighting enrollment and endowment declines and recognize the need to attract more adult learners to their institutions.  There is nothing wrong with these moves, but they definitely have gotten the attention of leaders at some more established branch campuses with whom I speak.

For all that, the greatest threat to many branch campuses will not come from other providers.  It will come from their own main campus, as the powers-that-be are attracted to the cost and efficiency of their own online programs and consider branch campuses to be an unwelcome competitor.  (In fact, branches and fully online programs can enhance each other, attracting somewhat different student markets.)  Watch your back and develop strong internal partnerships that demonstrate how you can help generate institutional revenue!

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