Monday, December 17, 2012

Competitive Advantages for Branch Campuses

No matter how much disruption and change I see coming, I want branch campuses to thrive.  Long before I explored the concept of disruptive change, I argued that university branch campuses, at least in Ohio, had many advantages over main campuses, especially for first generation students, adult learners, and others for whom we were a good fit.  Moreover, branches offer opportunity and support that are important to many people, and they tend to engage with their communities in meaningful ways.

Today, I believe branches continue to have an important role, although exactly how it is expressed may change in significant ways.  The catch is that branches face so much more competition and risk than ever before.  As a result, I expect to see some branches go under, even as new branches are created. 

Successful branches will do a great job of market research and position themselves to serve specific audiences.  Although they will excel at service (see my earlier post), they will maintain focus on those services that clearly impact recruitment and retention.

Successful branches will be careful about space and overhead costs.  Today, branches compete with online programs and other options.  As financial models emerge that drive down tuition, spending with no demonstrable impact on student success could be fatal.  In addition, as online options become more attractive, branches will move toward emphasizing hybrid courses, in order to compete.  In fact, if all of your classes were hybrid, you could effectively double your current classroom inventory.

Led thoughtfully, branch campuses have specific advantages in relation to competitors.  Their physical presence demonstrates commitment, and many people will value the ability to stop in for any number of reasons.  Your presence won’t offset significantly higher prices or the absence of a highly desired program, but locating key staff and at least some faculty members in a community should be a plus.

No one knows exactly where higher education is headed, but I don’t believe everything will be online.  Many courses and programs will have labs or occasional residencies, and support for research, tutoring, and evaluation will continue to involve facilities, at least for most students.  I also believe that people will sometimes want to speak directly with a staff member about some issue, and we know that students benefit from personal time with faculty members. 

You may, over time, find changes in exactly how you staff for services, not to mention how you appoint resident faculty, but creative people should be able to make the case for their physical presence.  Note also that, if you are teaching online, you can just as well be located at a branch campus as the main campus or somewhere out in the ether.  Just because you can be anywhere doesn’t mean you must be at a distance.  I suggest you consider the possibility of branch campus faculty members dividing their teaching loads between local needs and online programs.  That will support maintaining a local presence while dividing the cost more widely.