Friday, July 11, 2014

Emerging Branch Campus Trends?

I’ve mentioned this before, but it interests me that the most read post on this blog is the very first one, which followed an opening introduction.  That post concerned branch campus characteristics, and it has been viewed more than twice as often as any other.  It can be seen at  Dating back to 2007, it continues to get regular hits, which I assume means that I chose a good title that shows up on Google searches.

Other frequently and persistently viewed posts mostly relate either to some aspect of branch characteristics, or to financial matters and revenue sharing.  With regard to branch characteristics, in presentations at NABCA and RBCA this year I discussed some emerging trends that I believe are worth watching.  (As usual, what I have to say represents personal observation, rather than any sort of systematic data collection.)

One trend is to open branches at greater distance from the main campus than we’ve typically seen in the past.  Small privates may cross neighboring state lines to place branches in areas they believe are underserved, whereas some larger institutions (also usually private nonprofit) may open branches that lie many states away.  Within a state, I see both public and private institutions opening branches that directly compete with other institutions in a way that ignores explicit or implicit service boundaries established years ago.  (I’m not even going to get into the issue of international branches, which I suspect has a dynamic all its own.)

Perhaps related, more institutions seem to be opening single-program branches or branches that tie only to one or two colleges at a university.  Similarly, some institutions are developing and delivering programs that specifically meet the needs of a major employer, whether a corporation or, in some cases, state government.  (Community and technical colleges have done this for a long time, but it has been less common at universities.) 

Not unlike programs that target the military, these trends make good sense to me, but I also think they stretch the “characteristics” of a typical branch, as I described them in 2007.  Frankly, whereas long-established branches may have been developed to expand access or to block competition, my guess is the newer trends are specifically intended to attract new student audiences and increase revenue.

It also appears to me that more institutions either are pursuing or considering separate accreditation for their branch campuses, or are recognizing their branches as part of a distinct college within the university.  Both separate accreditation and college status strike me as an attempt to give branches more autonomy around program development, allowing them to create distinctive programs to serve their own audience/market, without undue interference from main campus politics and process.

All of this is happening in a context where institutions consider multiple delivery options, create certificate and badge programs that are less than a full degree, or offer accelerated programs that shorten the time to a degree.  Taken together, all these trends suggest a need for targeted marketing/recruitment strategies, in order to make sure that the message gets to the intended audience.  Unfortunately, however, I’m seeing more conflict than ever between branch and main campus marketing and recruitment efforts.  I urge institutional leaders to make sure they have the right structure in place to support success at different campuses serving radically different audiences.

To be clear, I’m neither advocating nor opposing any of these trends.  However, if I were leading a more established branch campus, I believe I’d want to learn more about what other institutions are doing and how I might appropriately reflect those trends at my own campus.  Scanning the environment is more important than ever.