Personal Touch and Lower Cost Demands a Second Look at Branch Campuses
Creating accessibility tends to be the central focus for most post-secondary administrators looking to launch or expand their online offerings. After all, they provide barrier-free and highly flexible access for students who would otherwise be unable to attend a main campus. However, online courses can be expensive for students, and leaders tend to find it challenging to create a real sense of connection between the student and the institution. Branch campuses tend to overcome these obstacles, providing a personal touch at a lower price. In this interview, Ali Eskandarian discusses the benefits and drawbacks of using branch campuses to help expand the institutional footprint.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher education institutions, and colleges of professional studies and continuing education specifically, to expand their reach beyond their immediate campus area?
Ali Eskandarian (AE): Institutions of higher education have various missions. If a university’s mission embraces access to higher education, it’s natural to establish these branch campuses or education centers that allow the university to fulfill its goal of providing access, beyond the offerings at the main campus. In fact, the idea of “extension” is supposed to imply exactly that. Some universities might also consider them a way of generating revenue. There are a whole variety of reasons why universities have created these branch campuses. For the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming we are only addressing the viability of educational programs at branch campuses. Some branch campuses serve other purposes as well, such as research, etc.
In D.C., where my institution is based, we have lots of professionals who live in the greater metropolitan area, away from our main campus downtown. If you look at the issues of traffic, timing, convenience, there was good reason for us to put centers out where people have easier access to our programming.
Evo: How effective are branch campuses at helping higher education institutions improve accessibility for non-traditional students, as compared to online courses and programs?
AE: The growth of online programming is a more recent phenomenon. In general, online programs tend to be more expensive to produce, requiring more upfront resources from the institution. Creating access through establishment of off-campus education centers has been possible for a private university like ours, because we were able to reason that programs offered at our centers could be sustainable at more competitive tuition rates, and that we could bear that lower pricing because of lower infrastructure and maintenance costs relative to our main campus facilities downtown. The arguments were convincing and reasonable enough to receive the approval of our board. This addressed the issues of lack of access due to affordability as well as convenience.
One way of providing easier access is through discounted tuition. Another equally important factor is to have programs available at a reasonable time and format that would be more convenient for professionals who have other responsibilities and a lifestyle they would not like to give up.
When I talk about format, it’s not just the date and time of the classes but the way we format the program to be delivered so that students can make progress at a reasonable rate with a reasonable course load so they would finish the program without having to take a traditional full-time load. There are various approaches to doing that. For example, you can offer the equivalent of a full-time master’s degree in such a way that at any given semester, students only have to take two subjects at a time instead of three. You can offer one course at a longer 16-week period in parallel with two back-to-back courses in eight-week periods. That way, they can finish three courses by the end of the 16-week period, whereas at any given time in that duration, they’d be only dealing with two subject matters and two courses.
Evo: What are some of the unique challenges in simultaneously offering such a diverse range of courses with different schedules and timeframes?
AE: One of the first challenges is to determine what courses and programs to offer. We offer only certain programs at our centers; not everything we offer at our main campus is available. We rely on market analysis to find out what is in demand in a particular geographical area.
The second challenge is finding the faculty to teach all these courses. In the D.C. area, we are very lucky because there’s a high density of PhD–or other types of advanced degree–holders working for high-quality government labs or agencies and private companies who are very interested in being adjunct instructors or faculty. This sort of higher education labor force is not available in every locale. It is not easy to demand of your traditional faculty to be present in two or three campuses, especially if they’re not conveniently located. There are many demands on the time of a faculty member, including having to be on the forefront of research as well as service and teaching responsibilities. These are realities that we must acknowledge and take into account.
Evo: Looking to the future, do you think it will remain viable for higher education institutions to maintain numerous branch campuses given the cost of maintaining physical campuses?
AE: This would vary from institution to institution. First, I don’t think there is such a stark choice between online programming and branch campuses. There is a grey area there. Some institutions will have to face their cost issues and decide. It may not be viable for them to keep their branch campuses, or at least not all of them. The same economic consideration applies to the main campus, by the way. In that sense, the main campus is not any more immune to cost pressures than the branch campuses, when it comes to consideration of online programs. For some institutions, the branch campus may have a better survival chance than some programs on the main campus.
Also, we must remember, there’s a body of students out there who still would like to go and see their professors, have direct human interactions, and would be less inclined to take a fully online course or program. For many people, the blended (or hybrid) format might be a more appealing choice in which case the presence of branch campuses actually helps, because of the convenience factor and maybe the demand on their usage will be a little less because the contact hours will be fewer and therefore one can better sustain and optimize them economically with a smaller and more effective physical footprint. Branch campuses and education centers are natural extensions of the institution’s presence, and in that sense useful marketing tools as well.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the considerations that you and your colleagues made related to managing and expanding the presence of branch campuses across a service area?
AE: The biggest challenge is having enough of a critical mass and volume at the branch campuses that would make them sustainable and warrant having faculty of their own or, at least, more dedicated faculty than overreliance on the main campus faculty. That is something that we grapple with, and everybody grapples with. At some point, each institution has to find its own balancing act –or equilibrium–with regard to that important dilemma. You’ve got to consider that at the very least you don’t want the branch campuses to hurt your brand and the quality has to be at the highest level. You have to go even beyond the usual levels to ensure quality at the branch campuses (this is by the way very similar to the consideration of quality for online programs.) That is a challenge because if you can’t attract your star faculty to teach in branch campuses, then you have to come up with alternatives. It’s doable but it’s a challenge.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator