Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Thriving "Out on a Limb"

I consider myself to be an advocate for branch campuses.  At their best, branches create access and opportunity for individuals and contribute to the economic development of the communities they serve.  In Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life I go into much more detail about why branches matter, but for present purposes the key point is that branches serve an audience that is different than the audiences served by a traditional main campus or by a fully online program.  There are excellent opportunities for campuses and programs to partner in multiple ways, but it is a mistake to overlook the differences.

Institutional leaders certainly recognize that the world of higher education is much more complicated and more competitive than it was just a few years ago.  Count me among those who believe that the financial/business models are broken, and the impact of technology has forever changed delivery options in ways that are exciting but also increase risk.  In my opinion, despite recognizing the issues, most leaders remain stuck in frames and practices that are unlikely to be effective in this “new world,” but that’s a story for another day.

The last few chapters of Out on a Limb are more explicitly strategic about the conditions that allow branch campuses to thrive and the likely challenges they will face in the future.    There are outstanding opportunities, but institutions need a comprehensive strategy that includes distinctive approaches for their traditional audience, for online programs, and for their satellite operations.

For branch campuses, I believe the greatest threat to growth occurs when the main campus attempts to control too many decisions that are better made locally, in the mistaken belief that they understand the branch audience or that they need to guard against branch campuses somehow undermining the institutional brand.  Prospective branch students are not the same as main campus prospects, and their priorities are quite different.

Specifically, I believe that course scheduling, marketing/recruitment, and those support services that are directly visible to students should be administered locally, whereas those that are more of the “backroom” sort, such as financial aid needs assessment, registrar, and bursar functions can most efficiently be centralized at the main campus.  Any given institution may vary somewhat from the ideal, but enrollment success depends on connecting effectively with the audience.

Failure to appreciate the perspectives and priorities of different audiences is a serious mistake.  For both online and branch programs it is important to give them enough independence to avoid getting trapped by the demands of the “production engine” (see Govindarajan and Trimble, 2010, The Other Side of Innovation), which will try to rein in anything that is truly innovative, simply because the established academic and administrative units will view that innovation as a distraction, perhaps as a threat, and for sure as inferior to their own efforts on behalf of the institution.  It isn’t easy to support entrepreneurship in an established organization, but those who thrive in the future will figure out how to make it happen.

Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life is available in print and Kindle versions on  I hope you will check it out.

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