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Branch Campus or Online Program? Depends Who You’re Asking

The EvoLLLution | Branch Campus or Online Program? Depends Who You’re Asking
Branch campuses and online programs both offer colleges the opportunity to expand their footprints, but the best mechanism is dependent on the service area.

Colleges nationwide are under pressure to serve more students and produce more graduates, but in many cases this requires colleges to expand their reach to create access for new populations of learners within their service area. This raises the question of whether colleges should expand online or by building branch campuses and learning centers. In this interview, Christine Chairsell discusses the ins and outs of both approaches to expansion and shares her thoughts on what it takes to properly serve students, regardless of the platform, in today’s higher education environment.

Chris Chairsell (CC): There are certain pockets of the population that simply cannot make it to a campus. The online offering gives them access to higher education without getting in a car and physically driving to a campus. We have opened up access to higher education for different pockets of the population that weren’t satisfied by the physical, geographical location of the campuses. Early on in the development of distance learning, the population for whom we saw a significant increase was single parents.

The other unique opportunity for distance learning is that there are people that really love the modality. As we see the Gen-Xers and the echo boomers and the millennials come along, they’re much more comfortable with the technology and often prefer that to the interaction with people in a physical sense.

Evo: What are the unique advantages to offering programming through branch campuses that online courses and programs cannot replicate?

CC: We teach chemistry online and that takes some lab work, some hands on. We’ve found ways to do that that’s just as enriching as standing in a chemistry lab on a branch campus.

However, our career and technical education programs require that people pick up and manipulate those tools in their progress towards a degree. There’s nothing worse than taking your car into an automotive shop and having somebody that has never picked up a wrench work on it. Those kinds of vocational opportunities take not only the understanding of how the equipment works and having that hands-on experience, but technically, you’re really developing your skills. In an online setting, that would be very difficult to do. However, all that said, I would argue that just about any situation, we can—and we have to—provide the same level of education services anywhere or anyhow our courses are offered.

Evo: So, for the most part, the difference between online and branch campuses is more down to the student’s preferences than the quality of the programming?

CC: I would say so. The quality of programming has to be first and foremost for us in delivering that opportunity to the student, but it is a choice. The recession had a significant impact on our distance learning. We had a 43 percent growth in enrollments—a huge growth that created capacity overflows on our campuses. Our campuses couldn’t handle that type of growth so we put up a lot of distance learning. Before the recession, we had a really good retention rate. Students were choosing distance learning because they wanted the modality. During the recession, there were a lot of students that chose it not because they liked the modality, but because they couldn’t get into the class on campus. Those students didn’t fare as well.

Now we’re in enrollment decline and it gives us an opportunity to get back to where we were in terms of enrollment management and making sure that the student and the faculty teaching the course understand how distance learning works and how they can enrich their programs.

Evo: In terms of expense for the college, is offering a range of online programming more cost-effective than managing a number of branch campuses?

CC: Nowadays, online programming costs are about the same as operating a branch campus. The technology used to be very expensive. It’s now something that we anticipate and can make sure that we get the technology at the quality level for the students. From an accreditation standard, no matter where or how we offer our courses, we have to make sure that we have enough student services available in order to support our students, just like they were on the campus. The professional development and the level of student services has become part of the fabric of higher ed at PCC so I don’t see a greater cost.

Evo: How do students benefit from colleges offering programming both through the online format and at branch campuses?

CC: Taking courses in both formats seems to be pretty popular. We call those hybrids, where students come to class and there’s an online component woven into the class. Their time on campus isn’t as long or as much.

The hybrid approach also seems to be very popular with the faculty. For those students who can get to campus, it seems to work pretty well. We have those types of courses in nearly 60 different subject areas.

Evo: Are you looking at expanding your hybrid accessibility?

CC: We’re looking at the online enrollment data now. About 38 percent of our credit students enroll in some kind of distance learning. 22 percent of our students combine distance learning and on campus courses. 16 percent of our students are simply taking distance learning courses.

Evo: If you were to speak with an administrator at a community college who was looking at expanding accessibility across their service area and was balancing whether to go with online or build branch campuses, what piece of advice would you share with that administrator?

CC: Online avoids a lot of brick and mortar but you need to invest in technology and a quality platform and make sure your network can handle the platform. There are a lot of access points that you need to consider. For instance when the network goes down, you lock students out of classes unless there is a back door to get them into their distance education platform during the outage. You have to pay close attention to the “plumbing.”

If you want to build a campus, you’d build the bricks and mortar and would be very careful about where you’re building it and who you’re giving access to and are these communities willing to come to college. We have some communities in our district where that’s an important question to ask. You have to be careful on both sides. You may consider if you can charge a special tuition rate to build outside your district, which could make the branch a revenue generating operation. We don’t do this at PCC but the opportunity is there.

Distance learning will give you an access point beyond your district. There are a lot of questions to be asked and it’s a balance. You need to look at what are the needs in your communities and what are the things that would best serve the students coming through your door because the younger students are coming in with greater expectations of technology.

This interview has been edited for length.

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