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Ambitious Northeastern expanding its geographical reach

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After a century firmly anchored in Boston, Northeastern University is branching out — becoming Southeastern, Northwestern and perhaps Western and Midwestern as well.

Northeastern, known for its co-op program in which undergraduates spend significant amounts of time in the workplace, opened its first satellite campus this fall in Charlotte, N.C., and is planning a second in Seattle next year; outposts in Austin, Texas, Minnesota and Silicon Valley are under discussion.

The goal is to offer master’s degrees in industries like cybersecurity, health informatics and project management, matching programs with each city’s industries and labor needs, through a mix of virtual learning and fly-ins from professors based in Boston (tuition will be the same as at the main campus).

While higher education has long been seen as a local enterprise, with universities deeply enmeshed in their communities, the explosion of online institutions, particularly for-profit career colleges like the University of Phoenix and the Education Management Corp., has changed that dynamic. Northeastern, which is spending $60 million to support the expansion, is perhaps the most ambitious of a handful of brick-and-mortar institutions looking to broaden their footprint in new markets and with new methods of instruction as they worry about maintaining enrollment and controlling costs.

"This is a time of huge transition in an industry that hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages," said Charles P. Bird, a former vice president of Ohio University who helped develop the institution’s online offerings and now works as a consultant. "Higher education is going from traditional face-to-face delivery, and the unexamined assumption that that is good, to thinking about delivering a high-quality online experience, whether fully online or hybrid."

Northeastern has hired 261 tenured and tenure-track professors in the past five years, about twice as many as in the previous five, and plans to add 200 in the next three years — all of whom will be based at the home campus in Boston.

"There’s been a real knowledge explosion that has created new industries with new needs for expertise," said Joseph E. Aoun, the university’s president. "We don’t want to make the mistake the railways did. They didn’t think of themselves as being broadly in the transportation industry, so they missed the opportunity to build air travel. We’re in the business of higher education, and where there’s a new space, we want to step in."

Until recently, most universities looking to expand have gone overseas, starting branches in regions where U.S.-style higher education is a huge draw: first in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, where oil revenues have paid for elaborate buildings and hefty bonuses for U.S. faculty members, and more recently China and Singapore.

But Cornell University just won an international competition to build a $2 billion graduate school of applied sciences in New York City in partnership with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Last month, Emerson College in Boston announced plans for an academic center in Los Angeles. And the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania offers its weekend executive MBA program in San Francisco as well as in Philadelphia.

Andrew Delbanco, a Columbia University professor who writes about higher education, said such expansions are "symptomatic of the significant anxiety by institutions at all levels of higher education about their sustainability."

Some experts are skeptical that an institution entering new territory can compete with the existing local colleges and universities.

"If I were looking to move into a new region," said Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California system, "I would prefer to partner with someone who knows and understands that market and already has a name brand there."

So far, Drexel University has come closest to Northeastern’s approach — and not without difficulties.

In 2009, Drexel — a century-old research university of about 18,000 students in Philadelphia that also has an extensive co-op program — opened a graduate center in downtown Sacramento, offering degrees through the hybrid online/fly-in model. That juggling act turned out to be "a lot harder than anyone thought it would be," said John A. Fry, who became Drexel’s president last year and has since called off a plan to build a full undergraduate campus in California.

"I went out there my third week, and my conclusion was that the graduate center was struggling and needed a lot of attention," Fry said. "We needed about 400 students to put ourselves in a break-even position, and we’ve had to fight hard to get to 300."

Fry said that Drexel would not walk away from Sacramento, but that he expected more growth from the university’s for-profit online subsidiary.

"When it comes down to expanding with the bricks or doing it with the clicks, I think we’ll do it with the clicks," he said. "To work your way into a new community, where you’re not very well known, you’ve got to be there at least 10 years and build all those relationships."

Northeastern is working on it, with its downtown Charlotte space playing host to a stream of receptions, open houses and meetings for civic and business leaders.

"Bill Gates says place is going to matter less and less for universities in the future, but I think that’s wrong," said Aoun, Northeastern’s president. "I think a successful university has to be part of a community."

Before choosing Charlotte, Northeastern did two years of analysis and research, learning that the city had a growing economy but a smaller share of people with graduate degrees than Boston or New York. It also found that most newcomers were from the Northeast, including enough alumni to give the Northeastern name some resonance. Northeastern officials made 30 trips to Charlotte to meet local leaders, and a Charlotte delegation, including several corporate executives, spent time on the Boston campus.

Northeastern has North Carolina licensing for eight master’s programs — business administration, finance, taxation, project management, leadership, sports leadership, education and health informatics — from among its 234 existing master’s programs, with an additional 14 applications pending.

Aoun said he expected new benefits from the Charlotte presence, including temporary jobs for Boston-based undergraduates and research opportunities for professors.

"We have already been approached about new opportunities, including a partnership with Duke Energy," Aoun said. "We’re trying to be the first university with a national network. Because of our co-op program, we already have 2,500 corporations and NGOs that work with us," he added, referring to nongovernmental organizations.

Cheryl Richards, the regional dean in Charlotte, declined to say how many students had enrolled, calling it an "irrelevant metric" since Northeastern arrived so recently. The university hopes to have 175 students in Charlotte and 100 in Seattle in 2012, and 900 and 850, respectively, in 2014.

Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners, said colleges in his city did not see Northeastern’s expansion as a threat, perhaps because its programs are more expensive and aimed at different types of students than existing ones.

"They know who they are, and they’ve built some incredible best practices in the way they work with corporations," he said.

Across the country, Danny Westneat, who writes a biweekly column for The Seattle Times, questioned why Northeastern seemed ready to do what local universities could not.

"I know, I should be thankful a midrank school from the East has the vision and gumption to expand higher ed for us," Westneat wrote recently. "It’s just that it exposes how we seem to be lacking these qualities right now ourselves."


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