Published on 2012/11/13
Focusing on adult students might provide international branch campuses the enrollments they need to remain viable.

After an initial period of great excitement and expectations for international branch campuses (IBCs), when it seemed that each month brought the news of creation of a new IBC, things have settled down a bit in the last few years, and the rate of growth has slowed down. At the same time, some significant challenges have emerged for IBCs such as a number of well-publicized failures , an increasing chorus of criticism from some experts, and the downturn in the world economy. To top it all, some commentators have begun to speculate that the rapid growth of MOOCs (massive open online courses) will lead to the decline of IBCs, as MOOCs can offer the same programming from the same prestigious universities more conveniently and at a fraction of the cost. In light of these and other challenges that IBCs face, I will argue here that targeting adult students can be an effective strategy for IBCs to reinvigorate their program offerings, expand their community outreach, and grow their enrollments and tuition income.

The most prevalent educational model for IBCs has been to replicate the courses and degree programs of the home institution for mostly traditional-age students attending school full-time. This model seems to be in need of modification in light of the real-world experience of the last decade and the challenging economic environment that institutions find themselves in today. One common characteristic of IBCs that have failed in the past ten years or so was their over-reliance on full-time undergraduate students and programs. At the same time, many of the successful IBCs are either mostly graduate level operations, or at least have an evenly divided student body. Also, originally it was thought IBCs would attract students from all over the world, and nearby countries in particular. This has happened to some extent but in reality, local expatriate communities supply a significant percentage of IBC enrollments. Add the constant pressure of needing a steady revenue stream to the above factors and you have a situation that screams “Adult Students!” IBCs can greatly expand their programs, recruitment, and outreach by catering to professional needs of adults in their communities.

A case in point is the University of Wollongong in Dubai, which uses the acronym UOWD as its brand. Established in 1993 as the IBC of its namesake institution in Australia, UOWD has grown rapidly in recent years and now offers English language instruction, 13 bachelor’s degrees, 11 master’s degrees and 2 doctorates. By implementing strategies and methods that would bring smiles of recognition and approval to the face of any continuing education dean, UOWD has increased its enrollments from 600 in 2001 to 3,600 in 2011. Market research, local advertising, alumni engagement, community outreach, and working with government agencies and local companies are some of the activities employed by UOWD that are second nature to continuing education professionals. One  program for adult students that has been successful is a master’s degree in forensic accounting for public employees, which graduated its first class in 2010. More recently, Wollongong’s market research identified a need for a part-time, evening bachelor’s program which led to the establishment of a bachelor’s of business administration degree that enrolled 40 students as of 2011 fall semester (read the full story here).

So, continuing education and lifelong learning programs can have a positive impact on the bottom line of IBCs and improve student access and enhance community engagement at the same time.

It would be interesting to conduct research to see what percentage of current IBC students are adults and which IBC programs are targeted towards part-time and professional students. Regardless, it seems that this is a relatively untapped segment of the market that has real potential for growth. After all, if the home institution is offering both full and part-time programs and enrolls both traditional age and adult students, then why shouldn’t its IBC do the same?

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Readers Comments

Otto Greiss 2012/11/13 at 11:32 am

Providing part-time and continuing ed programs at branch campuses is a great idea, but Cyrus only mentions ex-pats, probably the largest and wealthiest of the university’s demographic, as beneficiaries of these programs. Another important potential beneficiary of part-time and adult education is local nationals, not mentioned at all in this article. Especially in a country like the United Arab Emirates, that does put a lot of value on higher education, and that has a mandate of education for all its citizens (increasingly, education for women), the local population could be a great source of students. Even though there is government-sponsored higher ed for Emrati nationals, I would argue that with the global premium on an American education, this population, at least those who were wealthier, would be highly interested and ready to pay the tuition to get a leg up over the competition.

Cyrus Homayounpour 2012/11/13 at 2:49 pm

Thank you Otto. Your point about local nationals is well taken. I certainly did not mean to leave the impression that only expats can be enrolled in/benefit from IBC programs. For example, see here: “I will argue here that targeting adult students can be an effective strategy for IBCs…” and here: “IBCs can greatly expand their programs, recruitment, and outreach by catering to professional needs of adults in their communities.”

Neville Lansing 2012/11/14 at 1:38 pm

I don’t think a branch campus can survive as simply a completely intact, completely American “pod” of education just plukned down in another (very distant, very culturally different) country– it cannot be successful without an attempt to understand and cater to its local population, or at least an attempt to integrate into the community. I understand the strategy of providing ex-pats with an institution they can attend that is not reserved for Emrati nationals. But a university is an institution of cultural influence and value-shaping, and I think it is foolish to pretend this is not at stake at a branch campus. I am not suggesting any neo-liberal importation of American values, but more simply an awareness of the impact a higher education institution has on a community. It could never hurt to attempt to develop a partnership with the host country beyond just being the soil where your branch campus stands, and the particularity of a branch campus and its role in the local community could become a draw in itself for students interested in study abroad, for example, and local nationals who see a particular benefit.

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