Not long ago, Northeastern University, a private university in Boston, opened a branch in Charlotte, North Carolina, and will open another one in Seattle, Washington later this year. These branches will offer specialized master’s degrees in applied fields relevant to the local area. Why is Northeastern moving away from its home base? To generate additional revenue, of course. Northeastern is not alone in this latest entrepreneurial trend. Other universities seem to be looking beyond their own campuses for new markets without confronting the complications of working with foreign governments. With persistent pressure for increasing income entrepreneurial universities may pounce on any new market niche if it promises potential students.
This trend may pose a challenge to the for-profits as some of their potential students may prefer the option of a less controversial “real” university for the same kind of targeted applied degree programs that University of Phoenix and its for-profit competitors offer.
Should universities such as Northeastern be spending time and energy on earning income from supposedly underserved markets? After all, it does take considerable resources developing a branch, figuring the local market, implementing the logistics, and so on. Does this resource investment detract from the primary activities of the university? Would these resources be better spent on improving the quality and scope of what is done on the home campus?
Some of the questions raised about overseas branch campuses might well be relevant for the domestic branches as well. Will classes on the new branches be taught by faculty from the home campus? Will sufficient numbers of professors be willing to travel regularly to Charlotte or Seattle from Boston to teach? Will they be permanently based at the branch? What will branch teaching mean for faculty productivity in research, or for their involvement with students and governance on the home campus? If regular faculty are not going to teach in the branches, are those hired going to be similarly qualified? Will they being offering an equivalent educational experience? What does a degree from a branch program mean? Will the students enrolling in the branch be similarly qualified to those at the home campus?
Another question relates to accreditation and quality assurance. Will accreditors from New England visit Northeastern’s branches to ensure that standards are maintained? Will the other accreditors have any control or responsibility over what is being offered in their state and region by universities whose main campus is elsewhere?
Will a trend to create domestic branches have an impact on the growing trend to establishing overseas branches? Will US universities have the resources, and energy to pursue both international and domestic branches? Perhaps American universities will look increasingly at the US national market rather than to more uncertain foreign prospects.
Domestic branches are yet another element in the increasing commercialization of higher education. For this reason alone, we ought to watch this with some skepticism.