The academy award for best satellite campus goes to...

US universities aim to attract students and business by opening cross-country branches

June 7, 2012

Credit: Corbis
Moving on up: 'Just as technology has obliterated time and space, this expansion will stretch our classroom from the shores of the Atlantic to the shores of the Pacific,' says Emerson's president, Lee Pelton

The great and the good of Hollywood crowded into a white tent off Los Angeles' Sunset Boulevard on 8 March as paparazzi snapped photos and well-dressed speakers braced themselves to take the stage.

But they hadn't gathered to see honours, accolades or gold-plated statuettes bestowed. The object of their interest was, in fact, a hole in the ground.

The event was being held to cele-brate breaking the ground on the site for a $110 million (£70 million) branch of Boston's Emerson College - an East Coast university putting down roots on the West Coast.

The new Emerson College Los Angeles Center will allow the university to expand the internship course it already runs in the city for visiting undergraduates from its Boston campus who hope to work in the entertainment industry.

Emerson is one of many US institutions that are opening satellites far from home in search of students, status and partnerships with businesses keen to hire their graduates or license their patents. "For many schools, it's an opportunity to attract new students and create new revenue streams," says Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College. "Higher education is a very competitive market, and individual schools are always seeking ways to differentiate themselves, and this is a way to do that."

The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania has a new facility, too - the institution's San Francisco operation, across the country from its main campus in Philadelphia, has a new and bigger home overlooking the bay. Carnegie Mellon University, based in Pittsburgh, operates a branch in Silicon Valley. Bentley University in Boston is also opening a programme there, in January, focusing on technology design.

Boston's Northeastern University has opened a branch in the heart of Charlotte, North Carolina - home of Bank of America and other major companies but few other higher education institutions - and plans another in Seattle, where Amazon, Microsoft and other corporations have their headquarters. And Albright College in Pennsylvania will this autumn start offering classes in the southwestern state of Arizona.

Technology surge

By far the most ambitious new campus is being opened in New York City by Cornell University in collaboration with Technion Israel Institute of Technology.

Classes will begin later this year in leased space; the $2 billion, Thom Mayne-designed campus, which will focus on technology, is to open in 2017. By 2043, Cornell's NYCTech Campus is projected to have 2,500 students and 280 members of faculty.

Having a New York base will give Cornell access to the city's technology sector, just as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has Boston's Route 128 belt and Stanford is in the heart of Silicon Valley, says Lance Collins, dean of engineering at Cornell's main campus in upstate New York.

"Cornell produces [new technology] at the level of all of the top schools, but we're located in an economy that can't really commercialise it at the rate that we produce it," Collins says.

"It's not a place that has an economy that can really accommodate what we produce. So all of our know-how goes all over the place."

Stanford and MIT, by contrast, he says, "have sort of virtuous cycles we haven't been able to take advantage of".

Emerson's move into Hollywood is also ambitious. It, too, has hired Mayne, in its case to design a landmark 10-storey building to house classrooms and apartments for faculty and students, plus alumni and admissions offices.

Scheduled to open in early 2014, the building will be big enough for Emerson to add graduate and professional programmes and host industry events and conferences in a part of the country where there is demand for university graduates, but where public higher education has suffered deep cuts, and where universities are turning away students.

The college "has a very strong brand in arts and communication, and this is an opportunity to strengthen and expand that brand in Los Angeles," Pelton says.

"We want to make a very large statement about Emerson College and the value of Emerson College to the arts and entertainment, and to Los Angeles."

Meeting demand halfway

Pelton says that university satellites are a logical development of the expansion of online education in the US, which has transformed the expectation that students must come to a campus. Instead, universities are finding themselves coming to the students.

Undergraduates will travel from Boston to spend a semester or a summer in Hollywood, taking courses while working in internships in the entertainment, media and public relations sectors. Graduate and professional programmes will be added for Los Angeles residents.

"Just as technology has obliter-ated time and space, this expansion will stretch our classroom from the shores of the Atlantic to the shores of the Pacific," Pelton boasts.

The satellite campuses are the next incarnation of distance education, says Bill Gribbons, director of the master's course in human factors in information design at Bentley University.

Bentley estimates that around 800 positions in technology design exist in Silicon Valley for which companies cannot find employees. Students could fit themselves for those jobs by studying online - but Bentley has found that distance learners crave at least some face-to-face instruction.

"A lot of universities are wrestling with how you deal with that online space," Gribbons says. "We're beginning to see the leading edge of a time when a university is no longer defined by bricks and mortar at a set location with a set faculty. This notion of learning communities not defined by place is the way the market is going to go."

Bentley's California programme will include a one-week residency at its campus near Boston, where it has a high-tech "design and usability" lab, and its California courses will be made available online to its students back in Boston.

"We'll no longer be saying we have [Boston] students, we have San Francisco students, we have online students," Gribbons says. "We'll just have students."

At Wharton San Francisco, administrators have discovered that the plethora of business courses available online do not entirely meet students' expectations.

"Being in a classroom with colleagues and peers in a learning environment is a definite benefit," says Bernadette Birt, the satellite school's chief operating officer.

It doesn't hurt that tuition for many of the students in the master's programme in business administration at the California branch is paid for by their employers - including many of the high-flying technology conglomerates in the San Francisco Bay area.

And the benefits flow both ways. Cities where branch campuses are opening appear delighted to have them. Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, personally welcomed Emerson to Hollywood. And the city of Mesa, Arizona, invited Albright College to set up shop there as part of a campaign to increase the proportion of its population with university degrees at a time when the state's public universities are suffering from budget cuts.

Meanwhile, New York is spending $100 million in infrastructure improvements for Cornell, in light of its promise that the university's NYCTech campus will spin off 600 companies and $23 billion in economic activity over the next three decades.

In the US' fiercely competitive higher education market, increasing numbers of colleges are thinking not just outside the box but outside their home campuses to gain an edge.

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