Boston Globe Logo

Northeastern putting down stakes across the country

By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / October 31, 2011

Northeastern University is going south and west: It plans to open a regional campus in Charlotte, N.C., today and a similar outpost in Seattle within the year, with hopes of eventually planting flags in Austin, Minneapolis, the Silicon Valley area, and beyond.

The campuses will offer graduate degrees tailored to the workforce needs of local economies, with courses taught partly online and partly by Northeastern faculty flown in every few weeks. They will also help students work with local employers on research projects in an extension of the school’s signature co-op program.

The ambitious expansion comes as many other colleges are retrenching in response to economic hardship.

“Obviously there are risks associated with what Northeastern is doing,’’ said Henry Eyring, coauthor of “The Innovative University,’’ an influential book on new models for higher education. “But I think more institutions will go this way. If Northeastern gets out there quickly, it could have a lasting advantage.’’

Many universities have opened branch campuses either abroad or relatively close to their home bases; many also offer online courses. But few nonprofit colleges have combined both branch campuses and online courses across a broad geographic area.

Northeastern officials say they are making a safe bet because of several recent trends, including employers’ rising demand for workers with advanced credentials and colleges’ equally pressing need for fresh revenue. Improvements in technology also make online learning more engaging and effective than it used to be.

“This is a great time to look at new models, because a lot of the old models for higher education just aren’t going to be sustainable,’’ said Philly Mantella, the school’s senior vice president for enrollment management and student affairs.

Northeastern is making an initial investment of $60 million, with most of that going toward hiring professors. It is also increasing faculty ranks at home and has hired 261 new faculty members out of a planned total of 300. Many of the new faculty members will teach courses at the regional sites as well as the Boston campus.

The school has conducted two years’ worth of surveys of the cities it has chosen and believes there is high demand for Northeastern’s courses. Its president, Joseph Aoun, said the university could meet that demand at a relatively low cost. Graduate education and online classes can be delivered more cheaply than undergraduate education, in part because they do not require dormitories.

“We brag in higher education about the number of applications we receive and the number of students we reject, because we have a residential model that limits the number of seats available,’’ Aoun said. “But if you look at master’s degrees, that’s not a residential model. The limitations of physical infrastructure are not there, because you’re dealing with adults.’’

Eyring said that both employers and workers would welcome degree programs that can be completed on a flexible schedule, especially in a time when jobs are scarce.

But it will also find competitors, he added: “Places like the University of Phoenix, the for-profits - this is really their bread and butter.’’

Profit schools such as the University of Phoenix have grown rapidly in the last decade, in part because of the convenience of their online offerings and their wide geographic scope. (Phoenix has 200 campuses worldwide.) It has also come under fire and government scrutiny, accused of being diploma mills.

Aoun said Northeastern had no desire to go down that path. It will closely monitor the quality of its regional sites, he said, closing any degree programs that fail to live up to the school’s overall standards.

The Charlotte campus, which will serve as a test case for the others the Boston-based school wants to launch, will at first consist of 14,000 square feet on two floors leased from a prominent building uptown.

Aoun said the university had considered buying a building but did not want to be saddled with large real estate costs while it experimented with the program.

When classes start in January, the school will offer eight master’s degrees, ranging in cost from $24,000 (for a project management program) to $65,000 (an MBA). By next year it hopes to expand its offerings to 20 degrees.

Many of the planned offerings are in unconventional disciplines. Northeastern has successfully piloted some of them at its Boston campus. Its health informatics master’s program in Boston, for instance, has 93 students enrolled - almost a 500 percent jump from its first class in 2005. The school will offer the degree in Charlotte, where the growing health care industry can take advantage of the discipline’s focus on manipulating medical data. Northeastern has had similar success in information assurance, a field focused on cybersecurity, which it will offer in Seattle.

Charlotte already has several universities, including a branch of the state system, two private universities, and two branches of private schools with home bases elsewhere.

“UNC-Charlotte is wonderful,’’ said Molly Corbett Broad, former president of the University of North Carolina and president of the American Council on Education, where Aoun is the incoming board chair. “But it hasn’t been around for 100 years the way Northeastern has. It’s still developing.’’

Officials in Seattle said similar issues there had made Northeastern’s proposal appealing.

“The fact is, we have more demand for workers than we have the capacity to educate them,’’ said Dow Constantine, the elected head of King County, of which Seattle is the seat.

Northeastern has not yet chosen a building for its Seattle site, and its plans there have been kept quiet.

“They need to get here, get established, and help people understand how they fit into the mix,’’ said Constantine.

Plans for Austin, Minneapolis, and Silicon Valley are even less advanced, but that is partly by design.

The school will tweak them based on how the Charlotte and Seattle campuses fare, and Aoun said the entire project would be approached with the mindset of a start-up.

“We don’t want to reach a steady state,’’ he said. “I hope we never do. Because once you reach a steady state, you’re satisfied. We’re not satisfied.’’