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Needing revenue, old universities open new campuses where the students are

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There aren’t any Greek columns or sprawling green lawns at Northeastern University’s satellite campus in Charlotte, N.C., which consists of the 11th story of an office building in the middle of the uptown district.

The location is no accident. Charlotte is among the nation’s top 10 fastest growing cities with populations greater than one million, according to the Census Bureau. And the school is in a neighborhood where economic activity is so hot that office vacancy rates are in the single digits.

That’s how Landon White stumbled across it. The 31-year-old, who works in Charlotte for Liberty Mutual, was driving by the uptown campus and saw the Northeastern logo. He’d been feeling the itch to go back to school to “get a competitive edge in my career,” but hadn’t found any suitable programs.

White enrolled and is set to get his master’s degree in leadership this summer.

Karen Reiss Medwed teaches students in an educational doctoral program at the Northeastern University campus in Charlotte. (Photo: Timothy Pratt)

Karen Reiss Medwed teaches students in an educational doctoral program at the Northeastern University campus in Charlotte. (Photo: Timothy Pratt)

The Charlotte branch of the 116-year-old Boston university is an example of a new phenomenon in U.S. higher education: Rather than waiting for students to come to them, universities are coming to the students. They’re also following the money, launching money-making graduate programs that generate revenues for the home campus.

Several older colleges and universities, most of them from slow-growth areas in the East, are opening or expanding campuses in places with booming populations and economies, zeroing in on cities where there is demand for mid-career education, but not enough supply.

Emerson College's new Hollywood campus. (Photo: Emerson College)

Emerson College’s new Hollywood campus. (Photo: Emerson College)

Emerson College, also in Boston, has just premiered a Hollywood, Calif. campus. Bentley University, of Waltham, Mass., opened a San Francisco branch last year. Seeing unfulfilled demand in the Pacific Northwest, Northeastern also established a Seattle campus last year. And the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania — the nation’s oldest business school—was doing so well after a decade in San Francisco that the school has expanded its campus there by one-third.

Like Charlotte, San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles represent high-growth opportunities for higher education at a time when enrollment in the East is declining. San Francisco and Seattle are also among the 20 fastest-growing major U.S. metropolitan areas, census records show, and the Los Angeles area has the nation’s second-highest population, after metropolitan New York.

“It’s a growing phenomenon, and it’s going to continue,” said Matthew Hamill, senior vice president at the National Association of College and University Business Officers. “If your student population is not growing, you’re looking at what you do best and the future of your programs, and opportunities to enter a new market can be extremely beneficial.”

Private corporations expand in this way all the time, Hamill noted. “People think that colleges and universities should somehow be different, and shouldn’t have these instincts.”

Ten fastest growing metro areasIf that was ever true, it isn’t any more.

Wharton’s original move to San Francisco back in 2001 was, purely and simply, “a business decision,” said Bernadette Birt, that campus’s chief operating officer. The school anticipated that the growing population of young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley was a great potential market for graduate business programs.

“It was apparent this was the right thing to do, with all these smart, young people who really needed to learn how to run a business,” Birt said.

Seven-hundred graduates later, and two years ago, Wharton opened a new 36,000-square-foot-home for its San Francisco campus.

Down the California coast, in Hollywood, Emerson College’s new $85 million, 10-story building on Sunset Boulevard will “announce in a big way that we are in Los Angeles,” President Lee Pelton said. Graduate programs in the college’s specialties of communication and the performing arts will begin this summer.

Just as a corporation might have done, Northeastern spent 18 months conducting the kind of market research it needed to decide if opening a Charlotte campus was a good idea, said Philly Mantella, senior vice president for enrollment management and student life. University administrators “did a lot of listening” to more than 100 Charlotte-based companies, she said, to understand the local economy and “the nuances of the portfolio” Northeastern could successfully offer.

The average age of the graduate students in the Charlotte program is 37. More than 90 percent work full-time. So the courses are delivered both online, and, every few weeks, in conventional classrooms.

There’s nothing ephemeral about those classes; they’re not top-heavy with theory and facts. “I always ask myself, ‘Is what we’re teaching you today helping you in your job tomorrow?’” said Joseph Griffin, who joined the faculty after 12 years as a project manager in his family’s construction business in Lenoir, N.C.

That’s made a big difference for Landon White, who said he couldn’t find another program in or near Charlotte that was so eminently practical. Sitting in the open space between classrooms that serves as a place to eat lunch, read a book, or just gaze at the still-expanding skyline full of shiny skyscrapers outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, White said that finding the Northeastern Charlotte campus “put me in exactly the position I wanted to be in,” even before graduating.

White stays in contact with friends from his undergraduate days, and said many of them around the country are seeking to further their educations in the same way.

“They’re trying to improve their standing, or open a new career door,” he said.

When the benefits of these campuses catch on, “it’s going to spark more schools to do similar things,” White said. “It’s only going to get bigger.”

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