Sunday, April 3, 2016

Challenges for Branch Campuses

In my last few posts I’ve emphasized the need for branch campus leaders to immerse themselves in data, studying enrollment trends in order to better understand changes that are unfolding across the country.  Recognizing trends is fundamental to effective strategic thinking.

I’ve suggested some simple ways of following trends, also urging leaders to aggressively tell the story of how their campus contributes to the local community and serves an audience that is quite distinct from those seeking either a traditional residential experience or a fully online program.  Nevertheless, despite my belief that branch campuses serve an important mission and audience, I am concerned about their future, even as I observe the creation of new branches every year.

To begin with, the continuing growth of online enrollment is bound to affect branch campuses.  Across the country, institutions struggle to maintain enrollment and balance their budgets, with the result that competition expands and intensifies, while at the same time, online opportunities pull people toward more flexible and affordable courses and programs. 

If you decide to compete for online students, remember that simply offering online options doesn’t mean that students will choose your courses or programs.  There are so many online choices to be made, and so many ways of gaining academic credit for the effort.  The growth of certificates and badges to document specific knowledge and skills may even make traditional programs less relevant.  The right program, offered at an attractive price to a targeted audience reigns supreme.

At the same time, dual enrollment opportunities for high school students are a major trend.  It seems likely that more and more young people will graduate from high school with at least a year’s worth of general education credit, having taken courses that are critical to the financial model of most institutions.

For example, I’m familiar with one university that feels nearly forced to offer college courses on high school sites, either through qualified high school teachers, for which the institution receives only $40 per credit hour, or with their own instructors, for which they receive $80 per credit hour, in either case taken from the school systems’ state support.  Although the institution can cover direct instructional costs with this income, it cannot cover the cost of support services, facilities, and traditional faculty, which could undermine the institution’s ability to maintain its core mission.

A major problem is that many institutional leaders (e.g., presidents, provosts and CFOs) do not appear to be especially strategic in thinking about how to effectively promote their various delivery options, across their main campus, branch campuses and online programs.  Just saying you want more students and more revenue is not a strategy!  And the recruitment and retention of nontraditional students cannot be accomplished effectively by simply extending practices with traditional audiences.

Finally, thinking specifically about university branches, watch the trend of offering applied baccalaureates through community colleges.  My observation is that these opportunities are not only expanding, but they are popular with students.  Hammered on one end by dual enrollment and on the other by community college baccalaureate programs, things could get tough.  On the other hand, my friends at community college branches may have some exciting growth opportunities!

Higher education is in trouble, and branch campuses should be part of the solution.  I see so many dedicated people working hard to create opportunities on their branch campuses, while key people at the main campus seem dedicated to blocking their growth.  If you want growth, then take time to learn about how it happens or give the responsibility and authority to someone who can get it done.

To be sure, outcomes won’t be the same everywhere; some campuses will thrive and some will struggle or close.  But I suggest that the greatest likelihood of success occurs when campuses take steps to understand both threats and opportunities, positioning them to drive their own future.

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