Monday, May 20, 2013

Five Concerns That Can Interfere With Branch Campus Growth (Continued)

Last time I wrote about two concerns I have, regarding branch campus administration, if institutions hope to see an entrepreneurial attitude and significant enrollment growth.  These choices stem from not understanding innovation and entrepreneurship, and they get in the way of an outreach mission.

My third concern came as a shock to me, when I began consulting.  Many institutions actually have their academic departments at the main campus develop the class schedule for their branch campuses.  This never, ever works well. When the schedule is set at the main campus, I hear about courses required for graduation that are scheduled at 10:00 am, when the intended audience is working adult learners.  I hear about courses added and deleted, without anyone bothering to tell the branch administration about the changes.  Even worse, I hear about programs being offered without any predictable plan for delivery of required courses, at all.  Stop it!

The fourth concern may be less certain, but it reflects my strong opinion about the importance of establishing structures that encourage collaboration.  I believe it is unwise to have separate units pursuing online and branch campus growth, without some structural element that assures cooperation and cost efficiency. 
Expecting these units to partner in good faith generally will not work.  They need to see each other as collaborators, and there should be financial advantages to the online unit for supporting growth at the branches, through hybrid courses that make use of online content.  Without an executive (not the academic vice president, who lacks the necessary time) bringing oversight, they are more likely to compete than to collaborate.

Finally, in nearly all cases, marketing and recruitment need to be audience specific.  Understaffed main campus offices that are not engaged in the branch communities on a daily basis cannot effectively recruit or make marketing judgments for their branches.  They can and should partner, and the main campus has a legitimate need to insist on consistency of messaging and design, but people who get up every day thinking about the branches, not something else, should lead the principal work.

After more or less ranting in my last few posts, I think it is time for me to take a break and concentrate on other projects, for the summer.  Creating access and opportunity is important, and if I can be of help, either as a consultant or as a coach, please get in touch.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Five Concerns That Can Interfere With Branch Campus Growth

If it isn’t apparent, my recent posts reflect growing concern and frustration with the way institutions administer their branch campuses.  Having spent some years working with online programs, as well as studying the implications of disruptive environments on organizations, I also see important strategic connections between branches and online delivery.

Moreover, virtually every consulting role I’ve filled was at least in part tied to a president who wanted to see enrollment growth at their branches and in their online programs.  Although I’m pleased and impressed that these presidents recognize the potential significance of branch growth, the press of day-to-day crises at the main campus makes it nearly impossible for presidents to personally lead specific initiatives.

I should add that, again in my own experience, provosts or academic vice presidents seem less consistently concerned than presidents about enrollment growth through new audiences.  Deans have been mixed in their engagement, as well, but typically seem most focused on their main campus mission.  (This is not meant as a sweeping generalization, but simply my own too-common observation.  I’ve known and worked with some terrific deans and vice presidents.)

Although this is understandable, given their background and priorities, it means that presidents and branch campus leaders may be on one page, whereas the administrators between them are, at best, less committed to branch growth.  That is just one reason for my belief that presidents and boards should create relatively autonomous units to attract and serve adult learners and others who prioritize cost and flexibility over a residential experience.

With that overview, in this post and the one to follow, I will raise five concerns I have about the way branch campuses are administered that will reduce the likelihood of enrollment and revenue growth.  Similar points can be made about online programs, as well.

The first concern is that branches typically are buried in an institutional structure that is designed for predictability, not entrepreneurship.  The branch structure should allow nimble, quick response to opportunities, assure that branches can offer the courses and programs for which they have local demand, and encourage deep, engaged partnerships with the community served.  Moreover, both branches and online program executives should understand entrepreneurship and be aggressive in pursuit of enrollment growth.

The second concern arises if the budget covering faculty salaries and the delivery of courses on branch campuses resides in the main campus academic units.  Truthfully, this seems so obviously wrong to me that I’m stunned by how often I see it happen. Deans and department chairs need to see clear financial benefit from supporting branch courses, or else they will see branch courses as a drain on their resources.  

Put the academic budget on the branches, and then let units receive a share of the revenue generated, outside of their normal operating budget.  If you choose to pursue responsibility-centered budgets, which I endorse, treat branch campuses and online programs as revenue centers, not as service units.  The dollars still can eventually wind up in the academic units, but it is those units that are serving the branch audience, not the branches that are serving academic units.

Next time, three more concerns!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The How of Disruption in Higher Education

I have not written about innovation or disruption in higher education, on Creating the Future, for a while, although I do write about it on my branch campus blog.  This post will be published on both.  (The blog addresses are and

I’m intrigued by the rapid progress of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and other online options, but the trigger for this post is the pushback we see, especially from some faculty members.  The defense of traditional classroom education seems disingenuous, appearing to suggest that all faculty members create vibrant learning environments and transform students into sophisticated critical thinkers, even as students also acquire undefined benefits from the residential experience.

Actually, there are remarkable professors out there, and I know full well that important growth can come through the traditional experience.  The issue is how consistently this happens, whether we might find less expensive ways of creating these experiences, and whether the level of debt students are taking on is worth the gain (still undefined and unmeasured).

That said, I also think many defenders of the status quo fail to understand how new developments will disrupt traditional higher education.  Remember, disruptive improvements begin by serving current nonconsumers.  In this case, they attract audiences that are unserved or poorly served by traditional options.

In the case of higher education’s future, like it or not, the issue is money.  Residential education, specifically, has become so expensive that nearly all non-elite institutions fail to cover their cost of operation, especially given declining state support for public education, without extraordinary increases in tuition.  What some have called an “arms race” to compete for students has gone too far. 

The result, as I’ve written many times, is that many institutions require the revenue from branch campuses, online programs and other sources, to survive.  If the “primary” activity is going to lose money, then something else has to offset that loss.

To cause disruption, it isn’t necessary that most students turn to MOOCs or other low-cost options.  All that has to happen is for main campus financial losses to grow larger, and for enough nontraditional students to choose lower cost routes to their goals, to cause many institutions to begin a slide into oblivion.  Add in the developing trend of some employers to value the credentialing of skills over degrees, and we have the opportunity for disruption.

Once institutions pass the tipping point, change will seem to come quickly, but the reality is that it is happening across a much longer period of time, as a result of traditional campuses over-reaching.  This is why second- or third-tier institutions will suffer the most.  Elite public and private institutions will be fine, although they will need to make some adjustments.

Finally, when critics attack new delivery options, especially with regard to quality, they essentially are attacking a straw man.  Disruption moves upstream, from serving nonconsumers to serving traditional consumers, by improving quality through experience.  I believe our culture values education, and few are addressing how the “psychology of going to school” will impact choice.  Nevertheless, even if many people prefer a traditional, residential education, institutions have an unworkable financial model that seems ready to collapse.

As always, leaders who understand how to empower branch campuses and online programs for entrepreneurial outreach have the advantage.  Some institutions will thrive, but to do so, they must understand the challenge.