Monday, January 23, 2012

Credit for Prior Learning as Part of a Branch Strategy

Are you familiar with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL)? The web address is CAEL provides a variety of services, but I especially want to draw attention to their work with prior or experiential learning.

Even as more faculty members and administrators become comfortable with online and hybrid delivery of programs, I find that there is a lot of misinformation about credit for prior learning. To be sure, there are institutions with low standards for awarding credit, but there also are best practices that, if examined, represent a legitimate assessment in support of awarding credit. In that regard, check out CAEL’s Learning Counts site, to see more on their assessment services,

When one looks at research on adult learners, such as Stamats’ “Adult Students Talk,” among the features of academic programs adults are seeking is credit for prior learning. Institutions can refuse to award or recognize such credit, but to the extent that online programs put prospective students in the driver’s seat, those institutions will be creating a competitive disadvantage for themselves.

I certainly wouldn’t approve of a laissez-faire approach to the assessment of prior learning, but organizations like CAEL contribute to developing practices that are of high quality and that will be widely respected. Personally, I’ve advocated for at least a state-level approach to evaluating life experience, so that institutions have an agreed-upon standard that will facilitate transfer of credits.

I’d love to see campuses developing the sort of certificates or badges I wrote about two posts ago, as well as creating a legitimate approach to award credit for experiential learning. This combination could draw prospective students who want or need recognition for having certain skills and knowledge. Thoughtfully crafted, students could then see an efficient route to complete a degree. If an institution attracts adult learners by clearly meeting their needs, through certificates and credit for documented prior learning, then it will be exceedingly difficult for competitors to lure them away.

Personally, I’d price certificates and the awarding of credit for prior learning aggressively. That would help seal the deal with prospective students. Then, if that institution’s own courses and programs are of high quality, and the support services are strongly focused on student success, the package will be complete.

It isn’t rocket science, as they say. Rather, it is a matter of paying attention to student audiences and then seeking ways to distinguish your institution by respecting their needs and delivering innovative programs that draw them to your campus.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Northeastern University and the Advantages of Branch Campuses

These days, colleges and universities seek new ways to expand their reach and enrollment. Much of the attention goes to creating online courses and programs, and that is understandable. Delivering high quality programs and services, from a single, central location has appeal. As always, executing from a solid business plan is critical.

Nevertheless, there still are times when it makes sense to create branch campuses. Strong branch strategies emphasize partnership, community engagement, and other advantages that come with a physical presence.

Check out a recent New York Times article about a new branch established in Charlotte, NC, by Northeastern University: (You may have to copy and paste the address into your browser.)

I should disclose that I have a modest consulting relationship with Northeastern, and I was quoted in the article, although I had no part in their strategy development and launch decisions. What intrigues me about their strategy, however, is how thoroughly they explored options, before choosing to open a campus in Charlotte.

According to the Times article, Northeastern recognized that, despite remarkable economic growth, Charlotte is underserved at the graduate level. They also noted that many of the people relocating to Charlotte are from the northeast, and that there is a strong presence of Northeastern alumni. Future branches may be added in other metropolitan areas, with Seattle being next on their radar screen.

One of the first marketing lessons I learned is that there is significant value in hanging out a shingle, so people see the evidence of your commitment. Moreover, given a regional strategy, I like Northeastern’s effort to engage with the Charlotte community. Northeastern makes extensive use of co-operative education and internships. It is a research university, and they see opportunities for partnership and research, in Charlotte. Given the absence of other doctoral granting private nonprofits, there is no reason that Charlotte and Northeastern shouldn’t build a strong bond.

Of course, branch campuses bring other advantages, as well. Northeastern is committed to hybrid delivery, and a branch is great for that purpose. Many students still prefer at least some face-to-face contact with instructors and fellow students, and there is some evidence that learning outcomes are strongest with hybrid delivery. Moreover, branches can provide top-notch services, in person or otherwise, as they appreciate local student concerns.

The Northeastern project is unusual, in terms of distance from the main campus, but it clearly draws on the advantage of having a physical presence. Effective strategies require understanding the audience. In this case, there is thoughtful appreciation for market need, brand recognition, and market differentiation.

There are challenges and risks in stretching boundaries, of course. Watch the news and you will see evidence of failed initiatives, as well as successful ones. (Note the special challenges of creating international branches!) Over the next few years, we will see many different strategies, and that may be all to the good for educational access and opportunity.