How strategic is your institution in considering the role of its satellite operations? Based on my experience, I’d guess that the answer for most is “not very.” (I'm not addressing the recent trend of some institutions opening overseas branches, which I assume involve more strategic considerations.)
Typically, branch campuses and other outreach programs were created to serve some relatively specific purpose: To block expansion of another institution, to respond to political pressure, or (most commonly) to pick up additional revenue. In that context, branches have much in common with main campus programs for adult learners, as well as those sorts of online programs that represent a cautious exploration, rather than a major strategic commitment. And none of these efforts has been approached strategically at the highest levels of leadership, at least at most institutions.
Given the relatively radical experiments that we’ve seen in the past few years, it is easy to imagine that cash-strapped institutions might prefer to focus on scalable online programs, investing in course design and student support, rather than considering growth at branch campuses. Indeed, at first glance, main campus academic units might imagine that online programs will do more for their budgets, depending on how revenue is shared and expenses recognized. It’s that phenomenon of being drawn to bright shiny objects: The new stuff seems sexier than empowering growth on the branches.
As I’ve written many times before, the development of branch campuses reflected the technology of the time. Branches provided a space for faculty members to teach, advisors to offer advice, and so on. Interactive television brought an additional element of cost effective outreach, but branches remained a relatively straightforward extension of what happens on the main campus, and generally, institutional leaders didn’t expect them to grow all that much.
Today, a comprehensive enrollment strategy might well include new recruitment and retention strategies at the main campus, as well as the selective pursuit of online enrollment from students located almost anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, I think most institutions will find that branches still bring certain advantages that should be developed, not marginalized.
At least at present, there is a strong argument to be made that blended or hybrid programs are more appealing and tend to produce stronger learning outcomes than fully online programs. Note also that, with hybrid delivery, commuter campuses can expand their recruitment radius to 75, or even to 100 miles.
We know that adult learners and other place bound students are concerned about flexibility and price, in addition to getting access to the program they want. All the pieces for a strong branch strategy are in place: Pick the right programs, develop focused services and an aggressive marketing plan, and provide a facility that is comfortable and includes state of the art technology.
Given the opportunity, branches can attract more enrollment than ever. Institutions still can seek growth online and at the main campus, but there is no reason to hand over your potential branch enrollment to more aggressive institutions that recognize the hybrid advantage.