Showing posts with label Branch Campus Life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Branch Campus Life. Show all posts

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.

Monday, May 26, 2014

An Appreciation of Branch Campus Visits

Continuing to share from my personal experiences, I’ve been fortunate to visit a wide range of branch campuses both across the United States and internationally (Hong Kong, Russia, Mexico and Canada).  Some of the domestic visits tied to meetings of NABCA or RBCA, whereas others were consulting jobs, mostly over the last five years.

The consulting work shaped my understanding and opinions more than I expected.  In the absence of a substantial literature or research that identifies best practices, institutions developed branches for their own reasons at varying times in their history.  Every institution I visited had a unique story to tell.  There were common themes, of course, such as struggling to bring programs from the main campus, wrestling with interference from certain main campus offices that think they know more about the branch audience than the people who work there, and making sure that courses and class schedules actually meet student needs.

On the other hand, I’ve been impressed by the way branch leaders manage to get things done in the service of their access mission.  Financial arrangements, partnerships of various sorts, and persistent advocacy often produce remarkable results, even if the organizational structure or institutional politics throw up one barrier after another.  Good job, I say.

The challenges faced by small enrollment branches, with, say, 300-500 students, as well as the way an enrollment of several thousand students changes how a branch operates intrigue me.  At every stop I’ve met people who wear more hats than is fair, with job descriptions from the main campus that don’t begin to describe their days.  I’ve learned about unique strategies developed by campuses that deserve to be shared with other institutions.  I’ve also talked with students who are passionate advocates for their campus and community leaders who cannot understand why a program needed in their town can’t be delivered at their local branch.

My experiences are necessarily anecdotal, I suppose, and they may help explain why it is so difficult to do good research that is not simply descriptive.  I started this blog mostly as a way to share my thoughts and experiences, and my book, Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life was an attempt to organize those thoughts and experiences in a way that might be useful to others who want and need to know that they are not alone.

The future of branch campuses can and should be bright.  I worry that institutional leaders won’t understand the distinctive characteristics of this unique delivery form of higher education that serves audiences in different ways than a traditional campus.  Branches have an important role to play, in combination with online programs and traditional residential campuses, with each meeting a different need, but contributing meaningfully to the institution’s bottom line.  If I can be of help, please let me know.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Out on a Limb: Drawing on the Experience of Leading a Branch Campus System

Perhaps the most interesting career transition for me came with my promotion to vice president at Ohio University.  In that position, I was responsible for five campuses, with a combined enrollment (at the time) of approximately 9000 students.  Each campus had a dean, as well as local faculty and support staff.  In addition, I was responsible for the Division of Lifelong Learning, which supported a variety of programs, including paper-based correspondence courses, summer programs, conferences and workshops, and other activities.  In fact, we had a center in Hong Kong that reported to the dean of Lifelong Learning, so in a sense, we even had a branch on the other side of the world.  Later, we also provided administrative support for online courses and programs, which drew my work in new directions.

Although having a vice president specifically focused on branch campuses and other outreach programs may not be unique, I do believe it is relatively uncommon.  Indeed, Ohio University moved away from having a vice president and now has an executive dean, who reports to the provost.

There were advantages to being a vice president, and in measurable terms, things worked well. We were entirely independent, financially speaking, and paid an overhead of about 8% of gross revenue to the main campus, in addition to other transfers that came to an additional 4% of our revenue.  In my consulting work, I learned that it is unusual for branches to be completely self-funded and self-supporting, but I appreciate the advantages that came our way because of our approach.  We assumed the risk for our campuses, but we also received most of the financial gain from enrollment growth, allowing us to add programs, hire faculty and staff members, improve marketing, and stay current with technology, among other things.

All of this is discussed in more detail in Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life.  I’m sure that my view of branch campuses and how they either thrive or struggle was enhanced by the opportunity to work at the level of an executive officer of the institution.  The last several chapters of the book represent my attempt to capture something of the view from that executive level.

Although branch campus administrators should be committed to the development of their own campus, I believe they often could be more effective lobbyists and advocates in the political environment of a college or university if they better understood how things look at the main campus.  I hope my descriptions have some value on that score.  More importantly, I hope they encourage a more strategic perspective that supports a “mutual gains” approach to negotiation for resources, whether programmatic or financial.

If you work on a branch campus and choose to read Out on a Limb, perhaps you will recognize your experience in the first six or seven chapters, then find some helpful ideas in the remaining parts.  If you are a main campus person who works with branches, I hope the book brings some clarification and encourages deeper conversations with your branch campus colleagues.

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.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

NABCA Conference for 2014

I attended the annual conference of the National Association of Branch Campus Administrators (NABCA) last week, and it was a great time.  The program was strong, but as usual a lot of the value in attending was the opportunity to network with people committed to the branch mission of providing access to higher education.

I presented a session, titled “Get Strategic to Compete:  New Directions for Branch Campuses” which turned out to be a lot of fun.  The audience was engaged and participated enthusiastically, which in turn gave me all the more energy for my topic.  In a later post I’ll share more about some of the new directions I’ve observed.

My book, Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life was available for purchase at the conference, and I was pleased to have 34 copies picked up.  I also noticed an uptick in purchases of both print and Kindle versions on Amazon, so maybe word is getting around.  I’m not aware of any comparable book that is relatively comprehensive on the branch campus topic, but it is difficult to promote it in the absence of any sort of broad database covering branches.

In fact, I found sessions tied to members of the NABCA research committee to be especially interesting.  That committee has come a long ways over the last several years, and I noted enthusiasm for further steps.  The challenge simply to identify branch campuses and their characteristics is enormous. 

As one who has been around for most of NABCA’s existence, I felt real pride in the work of the current leadership.  I wish the original founders could have attended this year.  Their vision seems to have reached a tipping point, and the organization is definitely on a roll.  NABCA seeks to be a national, broad-based organization in support of branch campuses, and I was struck by the diversity of campus missions represented on the program, including both public and private institutions and growing participation from community colleges.

For years we hoped to establish a position of executive director to provide consistent leadership and better organization, and joyce gilley gossum is making a huge difference in that role.  My congratulations to joyce and to the members of the executive committee who hired her.  Susan Cooper, dean at California State University, Fullerton—Irvine Campus has been president for this past year, and her campus also hosted the conference:  Great job!  Leigh Atkinson, from Ohio University, was conference chair, and Allison Fitzpatrick, from Brookdale Community College was co-chair.  They and their committee had everything well organized, and if there were any glitches, I didn’t notice them.

If you see this post, then by all means track down NABCA.  You can become a member, “friend” NABCA on Facebook, and join their LinkedIn group.  Check out and keep returning, because things are moving ahead quickly.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Comments Regarding "Out on a Limb: A Branch Campus Life"

Early feedback on my book, Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life, has been gratifying.  I’m pleased that people find it an interesting read, but even happier when they find helpful information or ideas.  There are so few resources for people working on branches that I hope my contribution might provide some support or encouragement.

A few friends have asked about my intended audience, and that’s a good question.  Although I’d like to think that lots of people might find Out on a Limb interesting, the specific reader I kept in mind as I wrote was a campus chief administrator (dean, director, or whatever the title).  In particular, I was thinking about an individual who recently landed on a branch campus without having an extensive branch background.  I know from meeting people at NABCA and RBCA meetings that one can feel a little lost and alone out on that limb, and so I wanted to extend a helping hand.

Secondarily, I also was thinking about a main campus administrator who has branches reporting to him or her and wants some help in thinking through the branch mission, opportunities and challenges.  I’ve met a number of individuals, from presidents on down, who have more or less inherited branch responsibility, and they may quickly begin to realize that working with branches is different than anything they’ve done before.

More broadly, I think the book will be of particular interest to administrators and other professional staff.  Faculty members may or may not be interested in most of the topics covered, although I personally believe the more anyone understands about how branches grow or decline, the better they will be able to contribute to the success of their own campus and to design a satisfying professional career.

I’ve also been asked about my decision to approach the book more or less as a memoir.  Frankly, that decision was the most difficult planning choice that I made.  It was driven partly by the lack of research or other sources that could have supported the broad presentation that I wanted, but also by my desire to present something of a branch campus story, rather than necessarily a work of scholarship.  Eventually, the book concept fell in place for me, when I organized chapters to follow my career trajectory.  Thus, my decisions about audience and to use what I call a “quasi-memoir” approach were conscious decisions on my part that gave the project its focus and structure.

Just as a reminder, Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life is available through Amazon, in either a print or Kindle version.  Tell your friends and colleagues! 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Out on a Limb: A Branch Campus Life

I’m pleased to announce publication of my new book, Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life.  It has been a long time coming, but it is now available on Amazon, in both a print (paperback) version and a Kindle e-book version.  You can find it at (Kindle version) or (Print version).

Chapter topics are:

1.     A Partial Memoir
2.     Characteristics of a Branch Campus
3.     Politics, Purpose, and Practice
4.     Students
5.     Branch Campus Faculty Members
6.     Branch Campus Support Staff
7.     Agendas and Stakeholders
8.     Financing and Managing Budgets on Branch Campuses
9.     Lessons Learned:  Leadership on and in Support of Branch Campuses
10.  Future Challenges and Opportunities

Writing for my blogs, especially Branch Campus Life, definitely helped organize my thoughts and ideas around branch campuses, but I drew directly from previous material on only a few occasions.  No doubt, the book was enhanced by the many opportunities I’ve had to visit institutions around the United States and, in a few cases, in other countries.  Each campus has its own story to tell, yet there are relatively consistent themes that I encounter everywhere I go.

My goal with the book was to tell a story.  Because there is so little research on branch campuses, I drew heavily on my own experience, and I make no claim that Out on a Limb is a work of scholarship.  On the other hand, I’d be pleased if it led others to look thoughtfully and creatively at some of the issues I raise. 

Toward the end of the book I became more direct about what I believe to be critical for branches to succeed in the future.  These campuses are an important resource for students and for institutions, but if people don’t understand the unique nature of branch campuses and the keys to their success in a highly competitive environment, then opportunities are likely to be lost.

As I wrote, I especially had branch chief administrators in mind.  Leading a branch campus is a challenging role, but it also can be immensely rewarding and can open the door to higher education for people who otherwise would be pushed to an online environment for which they are not prepared, or forced to turn away from their dreams.  Branches change lives in myriad ways.  If you work on a branch campus you should be grateful for the opportunity and proud of the difference you make.

I hope readers will find Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life interesting and helpful.  If you know people who might enjoy reading the book, I hope you will let them know it is available.  As always, I’m also interested in opportunities to provide coaching or consulting services, visit institutions to facilitate a planning conversation, or speak at meetings with an adult learner or nontraditional student theme.

Finally, I want to express my appreciation for the many friends and colleagues I have around the country.  Your support and willingness to share ideas has made a great contribution to my work.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Should Branch Campuses Consider Separate Accreditation?

Over the past year, I’ve spoken with several people whose institutions are considering whether to pursue separate regional accreditation for their branch campuses.  The University of South Florida did that, just a few years ago, but now I wonder if there might be broader interest in the idea.

In the past, I’ve made a strong distinction between multi-campus institutions, such as the University of North Carolina, where campuses have a relatively high level of autonomy, and institutions with a main campus and branches.  Shared accreditation and curriculum oversight from the main campus are almost part of defining what it is to be a “branch.”  (See my previous posts on branch characteristics; the blog is searchable.)

Nevertheless, I can understand why separate accreditation for branches might be attractive.  As branch campuses become more deeply engaged in their communities and mature as institutions in their own right, they need to provide those courses and programs that students seek.  Separate accreditation might provide relief from arbitrary, unreasonable interference from main campus departments. 

In addition, the most attractive programs on branch campuses are likely to be in business, health care, and education.  In other words, programs that often are accredited at the program level, as well as falling under the broader umbrella of the institution’s regional accreditation.

In many cases, the requirements of program accreditors apply on all campuses, and at times they may be difficult to achieve on branch campuses.  For example, if your business program is AACSB accredited, your branches should meet the same requirements for faculty credentials as your main campus.  If that means hiring faculty with Ph.D.’s in business, it can be very expensive, provided you can even recruit qualified individuals.  Other AACSB limits placed on teaching loads may make it difficult to work efficiently with main campus faculty members, as well.

A third consideration is that more institutions seem to be developing unique programs on their branches.  I don’t believe unique programs necessarily require separate regional accreditation—it certainly didn’t at Ohio University—but maybe there are some advantages to giving campuses more freedom to develop curriculum, without undue interference from the main campus’s process.  I can imagine this being especially true if the branch is in a clearly distinct service environment.

I still believe that branches gain more than they lose by being an integral part of their home institution.  The “brand” supports marketing and recruitment, a single curriculum helps assure quality, and most institutions award the same diploma to students, regardless of which campus they attended.  Much is at stake in a world with heightened competition, and many students care more about program, flexibility and cost than they care about brand.  Leaders should take care about seeking separate regional accreditation, but maybe it isn’t the non-starter that I thought it was.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Where are the Tipping Points?

If you don’t know much about branch campuses, you could be forgiven for thinking that the only innovation in higher education is happening through MOOCs (massive open online courses) or the creation of branch campuses in Asia and the Middle East.  It’s not nearly that simple.

MOOCs will continue to evolve in interesting directions, including the direction of awarding academic credit for course completion and offering badges or certificates for completing a set of related courses.  I find international branches much less interesting, because I think other countries will develop their own programs, over time, and invite American institutions to go home.

More importantly, however, there is much, much more going on than MOOCs and international branches.  The range of online and hybrid/blended programs is astonishing, and no one knows which approaches will prove to be most attractive.  For sure, however, we know that online enrollment continues to grow faster than other categories, and my personal sense is that, when all is said and done, the cost of enrollment in online courses is likely to be much less than the cost to attend a physical campus.  In fact, it won’t surprise me if the price of online general education courses falls to near zero, which would create a budget nightmare for a lot of institutions.

There also are complicating conditions that have all sorts of implications.  The 18-year-old population is declining, which is a negative for traditional enrollment, and that knowledge led many institutions to work harder to attract adult learners.  But, then, this fall there was a nation-wide decline in enrollment of approximately 500,000 students, and about 80% of those were adult learners.  Distinguishing between macro and micro trends isn’t easy!

Moreover, although lots of people worry about the way tuition has increased faster than almost anything else, the implication is subject to debate.  Certainly, the trend for athletic spending and spending on student “amenities” continues to grow, and many institutions continue to take on debt that I believe will become a heavy anchor if competitors begin dropping prices.

In the private non-profit world, a small but growing number of institutions are choosing to dramatically cut their so-called “sticker price,” instead of stating a high price, presumably to demonstrate quality, then discounting that price by 40% or more.  The effectiveness of deep tuition cuts vs. the risk of maintaining the higher rates is yet to be determined.

Finally, there are those pesky accreditors, legislators, and both state and federal bureaucrats.  To me, they represent wild cards that can distort, slow, or speed up change, but they are unlikely to determine the ultimate outcome.  Employers, another important stakeholder, could have significant impact, but I’m not convinced that people in business have any clearer idea of what they really want than do governors and legislators.  All of them would do well to take a refresher course on the difference between causation and correlation.

Remember, tipping points only become apparent after the fact, and in a disruptive environment, risk is high for everyone.  Pay attention!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Getting Strategic With Branch Campuses

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.

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.