The Vanishing Neighborhood Campus

Only a generation ago, universities like Northeastern and Boston University had campuses strategically sprinkled throughout eastern Massachusetts. Lesley University offered graduate education programs across the U.S. BU had a contract with the U.S. Army to deliver master’s programs on military bases throughout Europe. Mega-high-tech companies, like Digital Equipment Corp., volunteered their corporate classrooms to universities for programs for their employees. Local correctional facilities opened their prison doors to community colleges to teach the incarcerated. Higher education thrived in various local settings, especially for adults returning to college on a part-time basis. Much of this has now vanished—though perhaps re-emerging in new forms and for very different purposes.

Why did satellite campuses boom, and then fold? Despite recent publicity about new sites nationally and overseas, this has actually been a declining business for most established institutions. But are new campuses likely to once again be a growth industry?

In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a rush of enrollments from those who realized the importance of completing their bachelor’s degree. Women returning to higher education after raising children, along with others seeking to move up the corporate ladder, now realized that Massachusetts universities were willing to respond to their needs. Employers were increasingly likely to foot the bill, coupled with the generous tax deduction that undergraduate and graduate students receive. At the time, suburban high schools rented out classrooms to serve as sites that dotted routes 128 and 495 (such as the Wang Institute in Tyngsboro, Mass., that was later gifted to Boston University). Universities struggled to justify real estate acquisitions they had made in their region. Home campus staff would pore over an intricate puzzle before each semester to schedule and staff sections, knowing that many would need to be canceled or consolidated with classes at nearby campuses. It only took an on-site part-time employee, deputized by the university, to register students and occasionally help instructors unclog the copier. A plethora of part-time faculty could be drawn, at low cost, from the corporate world and from the abundance of those with advanced liberal arts degrees.

Thousands of adult learners were able to secure an education within a short distance of their home or workplace. These alumni might never have set foot on their main campus. In this era, Northeastern University took pride in proclaiming its place as America’s then-largest private university. Convenient education was characteristic of this era. Institutions demonstrated their agility and business savvy by offering their programs remotely to respond to the catch-up process for middle-aged adults returning to finish their degrees and the willingness of communities and major employers to host classes and support training and higher education.

Some of the key factors for the demise of the neighborhood campus have been a growing concern about consistent academic standards, the rise of for-profit education, and, especially, the advent of online learning.

At one time, accreditors ignored satellite campuses in their reviews. The AACSB, which evaluates business schools, would overlook the major differences in the qualifications and profile of those who taught students on- and off-campus. Now the AACSB requires full-time faculty to have doctorates and scholarship and be evenly distributed across all programs, regardless of location.

The academic mothership itself now uses the litmus test of comparability to determine where to offer programs. A degree demands consistency and integrity regardless of where or how it is delivered. Rather than hiring a posse of part-time faculty, and toying with their brand, universities are exploring ways to leverage their mainstream, full-time faculty to ensure comparable quality and integrate remote sites with the home campus.

Students likewise have raised their expectations. A local high school, without any student services or sense of campus, was no longer a suitable setting. Those in the armed forces questioned the value and commitment of on-base programs, in barebones facilities, that seemed little more than disengaged franchises of often unimpressive institutions headquartered elsewhere in the U.S.

Another reason for the passing of satellite operations is local pride. Cities in the U.S. and abroad are only so willing to welcome carpetbagger institutions as a transitional phase before they seek quality, homegrown schools with more local identity and commitment.

As major, mainstream universities shy away from remote locales, the for-profits have aggressively stepped in to replace them. Large corporate educators like Corinthian, Apollo, Education Management, Laureate, and Kaplan have been willing to build storefronts in thousands of locations throughout the country and now across the globe. Grand Canyon is an example of a nationwide for-profit that aspires to become Arizona’s flagship private Christian institution, even incorporating a highly competitive basketball team to stimulate community loyalty.

E-learning, though, has become the predominant alternative for adult students seeking convenience and the ability to manage competing demands on their time. Military on-base programs are being replaced by online opportunities for soldiers to earn their degrees regardless of their deployments. Highly regarded research universities—like Georgetown and the University of Southern California–now extend their reach through distance learning without compromising their reputation. Busy and often traveling working professionals are seeking a rigorous, meaningful online education that fits their lifestyle and their need for credible credentials. Like the replacement of local movie houses with the glitzy multiplex cinema, students opt to either stay put—or travel to a bona fide campus that consolidates all of the academic qualities and amenities they seek.

Recent media hype suggests a rebirth of satellite campuses—perhaps with new formulae. NYU in Abu Dhabi, Northeastern in Charlotte and Seattle, Yale in Singapore, are examples, along with those establishing offices in foreign cities to build relationships and recruit students. Rather than flying under the radar with minimalist sites offering courses taught by adjunct faculty, these new models are attempting something far more public and ambitious.

But with higher stakes comes even greater uncertainty: Will locals continue to support the presence of outsiders? Will a critical mass of students opt for these programs? Will on-campus faculty provide the teaching and quality control necessary to ensure comparability, and will those at the remote site feel part of the home institution? The new operating principle should be: the further away the site, the tighter the tether to the university itself. The barriers, risks and costs are now too high for aspiring, reputation-conscious research universities to casually compete for local students in far-off settings—unless they choose to do so through distance learning. With the expansionist dreams of some universities comes the responsibility and headaches of the realities they will inevitably confront.

Jay A. Halfond is dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University.

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