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It seems like everybody’s doing branch campuses these days. New York University’s full-fledged campus in Abu Dhabi has been snagging headlines since 2007, as have Yale University’s effort to set up a liberal arts college in Singapore and Duke University’s planned campus in Kunshan, China.

With all the hype, it’s easy to forget that branch campuses have been around for decades, just a little closer to home. Universities have long been setting up satellite campuses in their backyards to better reach potential students in their traditional markets, particularly working adults who wanted to complete undergraduate degrees.

And while the high-profile international branches might be on the upswing, many higher education administrators say the old model is waning. As accreditors have enforced higher quality for branch campuses, technology has lowered barriers to delivering quality distance courses, and demand for convenient graduate programs has increased, the public and private, not-for-profit colleges and universities have begun closing bachelor’s degree programs at branch or satellite campuses.

Colleges and universities have instead begun focusing their efforts on delivering graduate programs, either by creating online programs or by setting up more comprehensive programs in attractive urban areas, sometimes in other states or regions, which can bring in more revenue and help grow national brands for recruiting undergraduates.

While the shift has led to the development of a much more competitive national market for graduate programs – and greater convenience for professors and students – it has left a big hole in the market for convenient, face-to-face undergraduate programs, a market that has been filled so far by for-profit institutions.

“We, the nonprofit institutions, have relinquished some significant market to for-profit institutions,” said Jay A. Halfond, dean of the Metropolitan College and extended education at Boston University, who wrote a column about the decline of local branch campuses for the New England Board of Higher Education.

Owning the Backyard

The evolution of Northeastern’s strategy toward branch campuses might be one of the clearest examples of the trend.

View Northeastern Mass. Campuses in a larger map
Northeastern's campuses in the Boston metropolitan area. Main campus in red, branches in blue.

In the 1960s and the 1970s, the Boston university established several regional campuses in the city's suburbs, particularly Burlington and Dedham. The idea behind the campuses, said Sean Gallagher, senior strategist and market development officer at Northeastern, was “bringing education to people and companies where population growth was.”

The programs were not flashy, Gallagher said. He referred to them as “no frills” programs, which delivered the education that adults wanted without a lot of the trappings of a traditional campus. While the Dedham and Burlington sites have grown into full campuses, many other programs were delivered in rented facilities, such as local high schools, and by part-time faculty, many of whom were hired without the same educational credentials as those on the main campus. Most of the branch programs focused on professions, such as business and education.

Northeastern was far from the only institution to open such campuses. Boston University also opened a slew of regional campuses throughout the northeast, Halfond said. “It used to be that there was neighborhood aspect to this,” he said. “Kind of like Dunkin' Donuts, you’d have them on opposite sides of the same street.”

While these programs were convenient, Halfond said, there are questions about whether students got the same quality education they would have on the main campuses. “They may not have been as well-served as the numbers suggested,” he said.

A New Landscape

Between then and now, many say, changes in higher education have made that model of branch campuses and education delivery obsolete.

First, accreditation standards made it harder to offer branch programs as cheaply as it had been previously. Several college administrators noted a revision by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which accredits undergraduate business programs, in the early 1990s. That revision codified the standard that a branch program, if it is part of the main business school, needs to meet the same standards as far as student and faculty quality. “Mission divergence is the issue,” said Jerry Trapnell, executive vice president and chief accreditation officer for the AACSB. “If a branch campus is the same entity as the business school, it needs to meet the same standards.”

Enforcement of that provision means that the accreditation of a traditional business school, with research faculty, students of some defined educational quality, and educational resources, could be threatened by a branch campus populated with adjuncts and students who aren’t held to the same standards.

Second, the emergence of online education changed the definition of convenience for students and faculty members. If a potential student is looking for the most convenient program, the one on his computer – particularly if he can do it on his own time – is a whole lot more convenient than any face-to-face program, even one in his own neighborhood.

As more colleges go online, and as the quality and academic rigor of academic programs improves, administrators said, the less demand there is for a branch campus on every corner.

Finally, Halfond said, there has been a significant shift in the type of student looking for programs. In the 1970s and '80s, branch campuses tended to offer undergraduate degree completion programs. As more and more individuals completed college at younger ages, there was an increase in demand for graduate programs.

Redefining ‘Northeastern’

Since Northeastern first opened its satellite campuses in 1970s and '80s, it has dramatically shifted how it uses these campuses. The Burlington campus, located in the heart of the region’s technology industry, has been repositioned as a research campus focused on defense and information security. The Dedham campus is mostly administrative offices.

Last year the university announced a dramatic shift in strategy for branching out that tracks with the university’s overall transition from a regional institution, focused on serving students in New England, to one that tries to draw the best students and faculty members from around the country. Instead of focusing on students in the Boston metropolitan area, the university would be opening full-fledged graduate degree programs in urban areas across the country. The first program, which opened in January, is in Charlotte, N.C. Administrators recently announced that they would be opening a campus in Seattle. Administrators said the university has plans to potentially open campuses in Minneapolis, Austin, and Silicon Valley.

View Northeastern New Branches in a larger map

Northeastern's main campus (red), planned regional campuses (blue) and potential sites of future regional campuses (yellow).

“We think there is strong demand out there for the ‘Northeastern’ [the region, not the university] style of education, in terms of bring high-quality, private, with the heritage, etc.” Gallagher said. “Northeastern isn’t bounded by place. We don’t only focus on Boston corporate relationships or Boston partnerships. We live in a globalized world.”  Faculty at the new programs will be tenure-track faculty, held to the same standard as those at the main Boston campus.

Northeastern is not the only university experimenting with far-flung branch campuses. Three liberal arts colleges, Benedictine University, Westminster College, and Albright College, located in Illinois, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, respectively, recently announced plans to set up branches in Mesa, Ariz.

Halfond said there are certain risks associated with Northeastern’s strategy, especially given the changes in the landscape over the past few years. “It is so much easier teaching students in Charlotte online than to go down there and open a storefront,” he said. “You really do invite a lot of investment and risk by committing to a physical presence.” He noted that student demand has to be present and consistent, which can be difficult to predict, especially in areas that lots of institutions are targeting.

Halfond said Boston University has no plans to increase its branch campus efforts. Instead, he said, the university will continue to grow its online programs.

The trend away from branch campuses hasn’t been quite as clear as Halfond makes it out to be. Several universities have grown their regional operations, opening new branch campuses. For-profit colleges and universities, in particular, have been particularly vigilant about moving into underserved areas to offer both online and face-to-face education.

Halfond said he worries that the withdrawal of non-profit education providers from convenient face-to-face programs means that nonprofit education has effectively ceded this ground to for-profit providers. “I don’t think that consciously any nonprofit has pulled away from serving these students,” he said, “but if you take a retrospective look over the past decade, that’s exactly what you see.”

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