The Future of Multi-Campus InstitutionsCindy Miller | Director of Columbia College Global Civilian Region 2 and Director of Columbia College Kansas City, Columbia College
Predicting the future is always a bit dicey, though it’s a worthwhile endeavor when engaging in strategic planning. That being said, what does the future hold for multi-campus postsecondary institutions that have what are currently considered “non-traditional” or “adult student” divisions?
If you have paid attention over the last several years, the concept of what is traditional and non-traditional has flip-flopped. In fact, in 2008 the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success indicated that “today’s typical college student is no longer an 18-year-old recent high-school graduate who enrolls full-time and has limited work and family obligations.”  Over the next decade, the adult student population will increase.
If this occurs, what could colleges and universities look like in 50 years? How will they remain relevant to the students and communities they serve?
Adult learners tend to take advantage of programs offered at smaller satellite or extension sites, many of which are located in more populated urban areas. Growth of these extension campuses began before the advent of email and the Internet. As a result, remote campus locations became more autonomous out of necessity. Information sharing with the “home” campus was not instantaneous, and each satellite formed its own unique culture and decentralized perspective. For that reason, efforts by the main campus to exert control over the extension campus seemed intrusive. Over the last several years, however, electronic communication has paved the way for postsecondary institutions to promote uniformity of policies, processes and procedures across multiple locations, in spite of geographical differences.
This movement toward centralization and standardization will increase in the coming decades for dichotomous institutions with “traditional” main campuses and extensions that have evolved in silos. As technology advances with video conferencing, podcasts, instant messaging and the like, instituting common processes across all venues and student types will be critical and, once established, will be easily replicated at additional locations. The fluidity of the student experience from online to a physical campus (and from one site to another) must be permitted and supported. Policies that present obstacles to a seamless transition between campuses will cause students to go elsewhere.
Multi-campus systems do and will achieve economies of scale by consolidating activities that can be done more cost-effectively on a system-wide basis. For example, it is, and will continue to be, more prudent to develop budgetary plans that can be implemented equitably across 10 campuses rather than building a brand-new budget for each individual site. Specialists residing at the home campus will reduce the need for remote staffing in many administrative areas (i.e., student records, business office, marketing/public relations, IT offices, legal services, etc.) At satellite locations, staff members can be generalists who interpret and serve as liaisons between these main campus specialists and local students. In this schema, staffing is not the only area where costs are managed, but there are also generally lower overhead and operating costs for the remote facilities themselves. However, multi-campus systems must take care to ensure their satellite campuses have sufficient equipment and facilities to accomplish their primary purpose of delivering high-quality instruction.
Opportunities for development and fundraising will expand due to the increased geographic presence. This in turn will give administrators at remote locations more influence. They know their community best and have already established strong networks with local civic and business leaders.
While extension campuses provide front-line services to students, university systems will not grant these locations authority to change or alter policies and procedures. However, innovation at these sites should be encouraged. Openness to creative ideas and allowing remote locations to develop and try out “pilot programs” could help to improve educational services that could be transplanted to other campuses. In fact, the same electronic communication methods that allow uniformity in policy implementation from the main campus to the satellite could also permit increased input from the remote areas back to the main campus.
Adult students, too, will change and become increasingly diverse, and a campus culture that not only allows but nurtures this diversity will thrive. Recognizing differences in current work/family settings and in past educational experiences will help campus administrators create an environment that fosters retention and persistence.
Technology and pedagogy must be linked and, while the in-seat classroom will never go away, other e-learning techniques will have to be embraced and woven into terminal learning objectives in a meaningful fashion. Staying on top of new technology and finding ways to make it work in a classroom – whether at a “traditional” campus or a satellite location – will be vital to vibrant enrollment growth.
Bottom line: the key to success will be communication and customer service. If students feel that campus personnel listen to them, are truly concerned about them and respect their needs as learners, colleges and students will both achieve their goals, whether it’s at a traditional campus, a satellite location or online.
– – – –
 Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, “Yesterday’s Nontraditional Student is Today’s Traditional Student,” June 29, 2011. Available from http://www.clasp.org/admin/site/publications/files/Nontraditional-Students-Facts-2011.pdf
Author Perspective: Administrator