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Under the Radar: Branch Campuses Take Off

University Business, Oct 2007

WHAT HAPPENED TO all the people who thought online learning would drive traditional education out of the market? Just when "click" is supposed to be replacing "brick," branch campuses are proliferating around the country, to the point where the question facing academic administrators these days may well be, "Where and when are you planning to open your next branch campus?"

In many cases, enrollment growth at branch campuses has been truly spectacular. Johns Hopkins' Montgomery County Campus in suburban Washington, D.C., has grown to 4,000 students since it opened in 1988. And exceptional growth is not limited to newly established campuses, as Ohio University's Zanesville branch, in place since 1967, grew from 880 to 1400 undergraduate FTE students in just five years, an increase of almost 60 percent. Higher education institutions in metropolitan Columbus, Ohio, are using the beltway as a chessboard in a frenzy of branch and site location decisions as Ohio University, Columbus State Community College, Mount Vernon Nazarene College, DeVry University, Dominican University, the University of Phoenix, and ITT Technical Institute compete for choice locations and students.

Why do branches appear to be expanding at a time when, on the surface, technology should be replacing the need for physical sites? Among possible answers is the fact that the vast majority of students are geographically restricted in their choice of college. Statistics tell us that 79 percent of students attend college in their home state, most within a few hours' drive of home. Many of these students are fundamentally place-bound: limited in their opportunities by financial constraints, family responsibilities, personal characteristics, lifestyle choices, or combinations of these factors. These students appear to desire education within a 30-minute commuting range, leading to much of the explosive demand for branches. In fact, one could argue that branches have helped to create much of the explosion in college attendance by nontraditional students as much as one could argue that branches exist because they are a response to that burgeoning enrollment.

Because of the 30-minute convenience limit for commuting, an additional evolutionary step seems to be developing. This latest trend is the creation of "twigs"-branches of branch campuses served by branch campus faculty commuting from nearby sites. Ohio University is actively pursuing this model of delivery, with three of its five branches having branches of their own, one of which, Pickerington, serving suburban Columbus, is approaching 500 students after only five years of operation.

It may be that the real impact of technology has been to enable the expansion of branches. Distance education, whether by web or interactive television, allows hard-to-deliver courses to be transmitted from main campus to branch and from branch to branch. But technology has allowed more than just distance delivery of classes. Library access via technology has enabled branch campuses to operate with a small core of books and journals while offering almost the same digital access to written materials as on the main campus. Electronic data transfer allows low-cost synchronous access to registration, admission, and financial aid transactions without the cost of duplicating expensive computer systems and personnel at the branch campus.

Yet branches remain largely ignored in the academic literature. The National Center for Education Statistics stopped collecting separate branch campus statistics in 1986. What we do know is that there is a great variety of types of "branches." Branches might include the campuses of institutions such as the University of Wisconsin system that exist solely to offer two-year transfer programs. In contrast, in many Western and Southern states with well-established and burgeoning community college systems, university branches offer junior- and senior-level baccalaureate degree completion programs, as well as master's degrees. We call this the upper division model. Some systems have opted for a distributed university model, in which branches house specialized programs and research opportunities, or indeed schools, not offered at the main campus. The University of Connecticut's campus at Avery Point in Groton specializes in marine sciences and oceanography, for example. Co-located campuses, particularly combinations of four-year branches and two-year technical colleges, are common in Ohio, where seven such pairings exist. In the University of South Carolina system, branches offer USC associate degree programs paired with baccalaureate degrees offered by the closest local four-year college or a more comprehensive and independent branch entity of USC. Because many public state universities were deliberately located in idyllic rural areas, flagship branches reposition these institutions adjacent to population concentrations in urban areas. Thus, for example, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia jointly operate a branch in northern Virginia to serve the suburban Washington population. An additional new trend may be the establishment of very distant branches of prestigious institutions, such as Carnegie Mellon's establishment of its West Coast Campus in Mountain View, Calif., in 2002.

In other states, branches are, in effect, mini-universities offering two- and four-year degree programs and, in some cases, graduate degrees. The 23 university branches in Ohio and the 12 branch campuses of Pennsylvania State University are perhaps the best examples of what we call four-year branches, where the curriculum is typically controlled through the central campus. Community college branch campuses are also common and, indeed, the very largest community colleges tend to be institutions with highly developed branches, such as Miami Dade College and Northern Virginia Community College.

We believe that the fundamental defining issue of a genuine branch, as opposed to a rented site or "storefront operation," is the presence of a resident faculty and a dedicated, permanent physical facility. The philosophical and operational challenges to the main campus institution in establishing and maintaining clusters of resident faculty and students at distant sites are numerous. How can the main campus finesse promotion and tenure decisions for branch campus faculty, who frequently have heavier teaching loads and significantly less opportunity to conduct original research? How does a main campus with selective admissions deal with branches that have open admission policies, as is frequently the case? How are branch campus students received if they relocate to the main campus, and what is the main campus faculty perception of their abilities?

Another critical question is: How does the main campus best administer its branch campus system? Three models seem prevalent, each with advantages and disadvantages that beg further exploration. The decentralized model, such as that Ohio State University uses to administer its five branches (many with student residences), devolves autonomy to the local sites, except in the important areas of curriculum and promotion and tenure. Faculty members are tenured and are full participants in the main campus departments. The centralized model, as found in Penn State's twelve branches that make up the Commonwealth College, features tenure based in the branch system. At the main campus, a large central office staff made up of branch campus representatives (enrollment manager, executive director of continuing education, and a human resources director) "shadows" major functions of the university. The leadership model, which has evolved to coordinate Ohio University's five branches, offers strategic management functions, oversight of the hiring and promotion and tenure processes that are campus based, not departmentally based, and troubleshooting between the main campus and branches. It also seeks to maintain consistency in standards and practices across campuses.

The distributed system of branches of public universities offering baccalaureate degrees represents approximately the same model that has worked around the country for community colleges. Two-year college systems have successfully brought associate degree education within commuting reach of an entire state population, such as in Virginia, Florida, California, and other states. Branch campuses of four-year institutions can thus be seen as a logical extension of the process of delivering the final two years of a four-year degree within commuting range of everyone in a state.

The message is clear that well-selected sites for branches and "twigs" can greatly increase enrollments. Ohio, a state of slight population growth, perhaps offers a harbinger of national trends. Since 1980, the proportion of Ohio's enrollment at main campuses of public universities has declined from 65 percent of student enrollment to 56 percent, whereas the share at four-year university branches has increased from 8 percent to 10 percent. Although community and technical colleges have captured the lion's share of the remaining enrollment, much of that enrollment has been at branches of community colleges.

What to make of all this diversity in types of models and the explosive growth in branch campuses and branch campus enrollment? Why "brick" instead of "click"? The academic literature, unfortunately, offers only the response "Who knows?" Research on branch campuses, especially in terms of how they can best take advantage of technology, is long overdue. And while academic administrators await the results of that research, the branch campus airplane is taking off. Administrators at forward-looking institutions are increasing enrollments by taking advantage of technology to establish and expand branch campus systems rather than risk missing the flight.

James W. Fonseca is the dean and professor of geography at Ohio University-Zanesville, and Charles P. Bird is the vice provost for university outreach and a professor of psychology, Ohio University.

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