Christine Barmes lives in Seattle, but the graduate computer science program she’s planning to enroll in will be held in a classroom of Northeastern University (MA). That doesn’t mean Barmes is moving to the East coast—Northeastern is coming to her: The Boston-based institution opened a graduate campus last year in Seattle just a few blocks from her office, one of several extant and planned campuses located far from Massachusetts.
In an era when all the growth in American higher education seems to be online or in overseas campuses, the idea of creating new physical campuses in far-flung regions of the United States—Northeastern also has a campus in North Carolina, and is planning another outside the northeast—seems to run contrary to conventional wisdom. But that may be precisely the idea.
“People think that the future of higher education is going to be online,” said Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun, who anticipates that 2,000 students will be enrolled at Northeastern’s three new campuses within a few years. “We believe that a hybrid model is superior to pure online, and a physical presence allows you to have access to more opportunities and people.”
Aoun isn’t the only one who thinks so: Students such as Barmes, an Amazon.com program manager who has already earned a master’s in project management from Northeastern online, have flocked to the new classes.
“If the [Northeastern] campus had been built when I started my project management program, I would have taken some classes there,” Barmes said. “There are some great wins with being in an online class. But a hybrid experience of online and in-class course work would have been ideal, as it would allow me to take advantage of the more flexible online class schedule but also give me the opportunity to network and build up relationships with my local classmates.”
The idea of starting new domestic physical campuses isn’t new, of course—there have been branch campuses for almost as long as there have been modern colleges and universities. Traditionally, however, satellite locations have been almost exclusively public, and almost always located in the same state, aimed at meeting the needs of a suburban or rural community with little or no stand-alone higher education options nearby.
The strategic expansion that Northeastern and a few other private and public institutions are pursuing in different populous regions, states, and even time zones is far less common, and more individualized to the needs and aims of each original campus.
Northeastern’s Seattle campus, for example, offers just graduate programs—many of them aimed at meeting the needs of that region’s large technology industry and its many employees. Northeastern views its new branch campuses as hubs within its global network, strengthening not only its degree programs, but also its research partnerships—the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle is one—and opportunities for cooperative education, which helps place students with employers.
A similar set of imperatives inspired Drexel University (PA) to launch a California location in 2009, said Sandra Kirschenmann, associate vice provost of Drexel University Sacramento. Like Northeastern, Drexel’s co-op programs are highly successful at linking experiential learning to the workplace, Kirschenmann noted, but the Philadelphia-area higher education market is also highly competitive, and densely packed with other quality institutions.
“It is hard to grow your distinctiveness in that market,” said Kirschenmann. “There was an authentic need to take Drexel’s experiential prowess and move into other markets.” As of last fall, Drexel’s four Sacramento colleges—business, medicine, public health, and education—had a balanced budget and an enrollment of 235 students.
Kirschenmann added that the new Drexel center has also produced a reciprocal benefit back in Philadelphia: steadily increasing numbers of California-based students applying for admission to the main campus. Since the Sacramento campus launched in 2009, the number of undergraduates from California enrolled in Philadelphia has more than doubled, from 40 to 110 last year.
Serving different populations was a central rationale behind the branch campus of Regis University, a Denver-based Jesuit Catholic institution that helped pioneer the concept that Northeastern and Drexel have adapted.
Regis launched its first branch campus initiative in 1978 as a way to serve active-duty military service members in Colorado Springs. The idea spearheaded by an entrepreneurial-minded Regis president of the time, Father David Clarke, S.J., was to develop auxiliary campuses to sustainably meet the needs of adult learners.
That meant leasing rather than buying classroom and other space, so Regis could “be nimble, cost-effective, and open campuses where the demographics were leading, or close campuses when the demographics shifted,” said Steve Jacobs, Regis’ assistant provost.
Regis has successfully followed that model in the years since: The institution has about 5,600 undergraduate students on its 81-acre main campus, but add the number of students studying in-person, online, or both at Regis’ current five Colorado branch campuses, and you get a total of about 16,000. That includes its Colorado Springs campus, plus four others: at the Denver Tech Center, in nearby Broomfield, and about 50 miles north of Denver in Loveland, and in nearby Thornton.
But the locations and number of Regis branch campuses have changed over the years, as the institution worked to ensure its sites proved convenient for various types of adult learners—particularly for corporate employees looking for degrees and credentials to help them advance their careers.
For instance, in 1999 Regis had a campus in Boulder, Colorado, along the commuting path shared by workers at a large IBM facility and other corporations. When IBM shifted many of that facility’s operations elsewhere in the area, Regis also shifted, opening its Loveland campus in 2004. Similar considerations drove Regis to open a branch in Las Vegas—meeting a need for teacher preparation programs in that area as the population boomed—and then to close it in the wake of the 2008 recession and housing crash.
Charles Bird, vice president emeritus for university outreach at Ohio University (OU), says branch campuses can’t just be simple extensions of the main campus if they are to flourish. Bird served as dean of the public institution’s Lancaster, Ohio branch—about an hour’s drive from the main campus in Athens—before becoming OU’s vice president for outreach and regional campuses, overseeing all of the institution’s five satellite locations.
“An institution’s leaders have to understand that these are different audiences,” said Bird, now a consultant who has helped about a dozen institutions identify and implement successfully strategies for either opening or growing a branch campus. “You can’t generalize from the experience at the main campus. Audiences are different; pricing has to be different. Going forward, it will be very important to be cost-conscious and very audience conscious.”
Wilmington University, a private institution located in New Castle, Delaware, has thrived using just such sensitivities: Beginning with a charter class of 194 students in 1968, the student body has grown to more than 18,000, with online students representing about a third of that number.
Including its main campus, Wilmington has eight locations in Delaware, three in New Jersey, and one in Maryland, including expansions that were made to serve military students at places such as Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base and New Jersey’s Joint Base Maguire-Dix-Lakehurst.
In a reversal from what has occurred at many institutions, Wilmington University started out serving mainly non-traditional students. But even as a non-residential school, the Wilmington now finds itself increasingly popular with traditional undergraduate students.
“Our financial model works,” said Richard Gochnauer, assistant vice president for administrative affairs and dean of locations. “We have very few fees. We are tuition driven and that is 93 percent of our income. We live and die by student enrollment.”
Central Michigan University, which has opened 13 in-state branch centers covering a wide swath of its own state, also found rich opportunities to serve service members and other adult learners far from its main campus in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Starting with a location serving only military personnel in Atlanta, for example, Central Michigan wound up carving out enough of a niche in that city to open a fully staffed center in 2006, using leased buildings and serving about 650 to 750 military and nonmilitary students in a given semester.
Because Central Michigan got an early foothold in many different places outside its own state—largely through first serving military members—the financial model continues to work, said Ray Christie, interim vice president of Central Michigan University’s Global Campus. In all, Central Michigan University’s Global Campus serves about 8,500 to 10,000 students in an average year across 50 centers nationwide, with half of those on military installations.
That said, “the definition of success is starting to change,” Christie said. “The definition of success by enrollment is not a good reason to go into a location. A new location/market needs to be part of your mission. Now the recruitment cost per student is so high because you are competing against everyone,” including online institutions. “The margin is not going to be what it once was anymore.”
Whatever the business model and wherever the campus, the consensus among those who have planned or run domestic branch campuses is that they fill a void that can’t be filled any other way.
“We live in a period of knowledge explosion,” said Aoun, Northeastern’s president. “Higher education has to step up and provide these opportunities for the people who need them.”
Jonathan Riskind is ACE’s associate director of public affairs.