Monday, April 22, 2013

Revisiting Revenue Sharing and Entrepreneurship as Tools for Branch Campus Growth

The second most viewed post on this blog is titled, “Revenue Sharing and Support for Branch Campus Growth.”  (  I tend to write shorter, more focused posts, these days, but so it goes.  Among other things, I described the approach to funding in Ohio, which worked well for a very long time.  Unfortunately, recent changes may make things harder for university branches; I am concerned about the long-term implications for enrollment.

In the same month, I also wrote a post titled, “On Being an Entrepreneur in Higher Education.” (  That post stemmed from my frustration with institutional leaders who claim to be entrepreneurs, but do not appear to understand what it means to empower innovation, especially in a disruptive environment.

Good information is available on how to develop and empower strengths-based teams that can release energy and creativity in organizations.  There are people who really “get it,” and they are more likely to be found on branch campuses and in those units that have experience in continuing education or lifelong learning than in the offices of those whose career focus has been within traditional academic units.

I do not question the good intentions of presidents, vice presidents, and deans, but in typical academic fashion, too many try to be “innovative” or “entrepreneurial,” without ever talking seriously with people who have been there and done that.  It’s frustrating, in part because I believe there is a lot at stake for most institutions.

Entrepreneurial efforts are intended to develop products and services that will attract new audiences to the institution or that will significantly change its competitive position with existing audiences.  Therefore, units charged with innovation require autonomy to allow flexible, quick engagement with audiences and partners, as well as the ability to make investments consistent with their rate of growth.  When universities bury these efforts in their colleges or hinder their progress with policies and practices that are inconsistent with speed and responsiveness, innovation will proceed slowly, if at all.

I think most institutional leaders would be well served if they think of their institution as a kind of holding company, with a variety of businesses, each of which can and should be managed on its own terms.  (I know some people don’t like business-related metaphors, but I’ve long since stopped worrying about that.)  Each “product line” requires structure, policies and practices that enable success within its own market.  Each requires leadership that understands the specific mission, the competitive environment, and the elements of a successful strategy.

That’s not to say that leaders shouldn’t insist on appropriate internal partnerships or that some activities and services shouldn’t be centralized, but the effort should emphasize the word “partnership,” and should serve the legitimate interests of each partner.  (With respect to academic programs, I’m suggesting that faculty still should lead and oversee program development and quality, but decisions about offering programs at branch campuses or online should be market driven, and processes for program development and approval should be streamlined.)

Give branch campus leaders an opportunity, and many will understand how to engage with their audiences in a high quality, high touch way that can succeed.  Keep them under the control of mid-level main campus administrators, and they will not be able to compete effectively with newer options.  Force innovative initiatives to fit within your academic, financial, human resource, and political traditions, and you will be on a very dark road.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Accelerating Rate of Change in Higher Education

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog titled, “Rate of Change and Predicting Which Institutions Will Thrive in the Future.”  You can find it at

The post was based on a quote from Jack Welch:  “I’ve always believed that when the rate of change inside an institution becomes slower than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight.”  Sobering words, but the logic is compelling.  Over and over again, we have seen that established organizations in a wide range of industries lose out to more innovative, nimble organizations with an idea that disrupted the status quo.

I am revisiting this topic, because the rate of change in higher education clearly accelerated in recent months.  The stories are stunning, as the availability of MOOCs and other online options are expanding.  The emergence of “free” courses has rapidly spawned remarkably low-cost options to turn those non-credit experiences into credit-bearing courses; we see more interest than ever in credit for prior learning; and we see a move toward awarding credit and degrees that are based on competencies, rather than on completed coursework.

I could go on, but I no longer have any doubt that higher education will forever be changed.  As I’ve written before, the problem for most institutions is that their traditional, residential programs inevitably lose money, in large part because of the nearly insane competition to expand amenities.  However, if you want to see real confusion about the challenge of serving traditional audiences, while encouraging innovation and attracting new audiences, look at state-level policy makers and boards of trustees.

Here’s the rub:  The institutional financial engine requires increased income from non-residential audiences.  I believe those audiences will be drawn to online or branch campus-based hybrid programs.  Unfortunately for the institution, those students will have excellent options to meet their needs that will be very low cost.  Established institutions will find it difficult to charge enough tuition to meet their broader financial needs, unless they have a very special brand.

We don’t know yet just which of the emerging options will be most attractive to students.  For myself, I wonder exactly how the psychology of going to school will interact with the efficiency and cost advantages of technology-driven choices.  How will students combine various modes of delivery and learning to create what may well become customized lifelong learning portfolios?

I anticipate that students will chose different delivery modes for different purposes and topics, depending on their strengths, interests, and life circumstances.  Degrees may actually become less important than building a portfolio of competencies, although adult learners may aggregate such competencies, add some missing pieces, and eventually claim their diploma.