Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Revisiting "Characteristics of Branch Campuses"

By far the most read post on this blog is titled Characteristics of Branch Campuses, and it was posted July 11, 2007.  If you want to read it, you can find it at http://branchcampus.blogspot.com/2007/07/characteristics-of-branch-campus.html.  Be warned:  When I first started posting, I wrote some relatively long entries.

One of the challenges in writing about branch campuses, never mind building a base of research on branches, is the lack of clear definitions or a shared understanding of what makes something a branch.  My piece on “characteristics” was an attempt to describe what I called an “idealized” branch, but there are many, many variations across the country.

A few days ago, I saw a list of “10 Satellite Campuses With Impressive Reputations All Their Own” on a site called thebestcolleges.org.  (http://www.thebestcolleges.org/?s=satellite)  I’m familiar with nearly all of these campuses, and there are interesting stories all around.  But calling some of them “branches” seems a stretch.

For example, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis is on the list, and I would insist that it is not a branch campus, by any reasonable definition.  It enrolls 30,000 students, in more than 200 programs, through 21 schools and academic units, according to its web site.  Similarly, they list the University of Michigan-Flint as a branch; they list another “campus” that is fully digital (hardly distinctive today), and still another that is a summer abroad study center, located in Europe.

I also have a complaint about all the attention recently to elite universities opening overseas branches.  Well, it isn’t the attention so much as the impression some articles leave that “international branch” and “branch” are synonyms.  I’m definitely interested in the trend, as well as the challenges and opportunities they create, but I’ve found many of the stories misleading about the branch world.

My bottom line on this is that the need for good research and shared vocabulary about branch campuses grows stronger all the time.  Fortunately, NABCA has been encouraging more research, and that work has progressed well from year to year.  Once we can agree on the defining characteristics of branches and begin to get a handle on best practices, maybe the critical contributions they make to higher education can be better appreciated. 

I maintain that branches are a unique delivery form of higher education, with some specific advantages for important populations.  Yet, the lack of connection and awareness of just how pervasive “satellite” operations really are is not helpful to encouraging branch development and growth.  I’m not worried about thebestcolleges.org, but I am concerned about helping branch campuses do well.

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