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Hawaii Pacific University to expand to Las Vegas later this year

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Thursday, January 25, 2024   

By Jon Marcus for The Hechinger Report.
Broadcast version by Alex Gonzalez for Nevada News Service reporting for The Hechinger Report-Public News Service Collaboration

Among its many other nicknames, this landlocked desert city is often jokingly referred to by Hawaiians as their state's ninth island.

It attracts about a quarter of a million visitors each year who fly from Honolulu. More than 40,000 have stayed permanently. There are hula-dancing and lei-making lessons and outposts of Hawaii's iconic Honolulu Cookie Company and ABC convenience stores. The Hawaiian fast-food chain Zippy's opened its first mainland location here in October.

Soon there will be another Hawaiian export in Las Vegas: the first branch campus of Hawai'i Pacific University.

The university, whose undergraduate enrollment has been falling, is among several that are opening new campuses in cities with growing populations and high student demand.

They're not the first to do this; Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University, for example, spun off a campus in Silicon Valley in 2002.

But with customers getting harder to find, more colleges and universities are going to where the students are: in fast-growing cities that don't already have a big supply of higher education institutions, such as Phoenix, Austin and Las Vegas.

"The islands are only so big. By nature, our potential student base is going to be constrained," said Jennifer Walsh, senior vice president and provost at Hawai'i Pacific, whose full-time undergraduate enrollment fell by 25 percent in the five years through 2020-21 - the last period for which official figures are available.

Las Vegas, by comparison, "is for all practical purposes an education desert. Not just an actual desert, but an education desert," Walsh said.

Market research shows that there will be high demand for the graduates of the doctoral programs in physical and occupational therapy that Hawai'i Pacific is opening here on one floor of a building in an industrial park it will share with the administrative offices of a casino operator. A master's program for physician assistants is also planned.

Many schools in other places where the number of prospective students is declining "are going through the same population analysis," Walsh said. "It's just part of what you need to do to stay relevant and viable in this very fast-evolving climate."

Those include Creighton University in Omaha and Fairfield University in Connecticut, which have opened campuses in fast-growing Phoenix and Austin, respectively, to train much-needed healthcare workers.

Unlike Hawai'i Pacific, neither Creighton nor Fairfield has been experiencing enrollment declines on their home campuses, federal figures show. But both are in regions where a drop in the number of traditional-age undergraduates is looming, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which tracks this.

Healthy enrollments "could change for a lot of us with that demographic cliff" ahead, said the Rev. Daniel Hendrickson, president of Creighton. "We've realized it can't just be business as usual."

The university's $100 million, 195,000-square-foot campus in Phoenix, which opened in 2021, includes a four-year medical school and accelerated nursing, pharmacy and occupational and physical therapy programs. This year it also started training physician assistants. Enrollment in the fall was 719 toward a goal of about 1,000 by 2025, a university spokesman said.

Phoenix is the nation's second fastest-growing city, according to the U.S. Census. But its number of healthcare workers has lagged. Arizona has a shortage of primary care physicians and needs more nurses.

"The lack of healthcare professionals was very notable, and there was a notable lack of healthcare education," Hendrickson said.

Universities are paying more attention to markets like that, said Rob Schnieders, vice president for online strategy and innovation at Fairfield. "A lot of planning goes into this, and more sophisticated research," Schnieders said of the expansion of the university's Egan School of Nursing to a satellite campus in Austin that opened in May.

Central Texas needs 3,600 more nurses than it has, for example, a gap expected to grow to more than 7,000 by 2032, the Texas Department of State Health Services projects.

"There's really exciting potential to reach new folks" in places like that, Schnieders said.

That's one of several reasons universities are opening branch campuses, said Peter Stokes, managing director at the consulting firm Huron, which helps them do that.

But when it comes to the criteria used to make a final decision about where to launch a branch campus, "enrollment and net tuition growth are going to be among the primary measures" schools consider, Stokes said - especially given "the supply and demand mismatch that we're going to be experiencing for the next decade or decade and a half," as the number of students in some parts of the country declines.

These days, he said, "almost every strategic conversation we have with a college or university involves some discussion of the role of place in that institution's identity and in the context of that institution's future."

Northeastern University in Boston has been particularly aggressive in opening campuses with programs not otherwise widely available, in cities, including Oakland, California, Portland, Maine, Charlotte, Miami, Seattle, Toronto and Vancouver.

"Our strategy has always been to listen to the market and to go to where the learners are," said Mary Ludden, senior vice president for global network and strategic initiatives at Northeastern, which also absorbed struggling Mills College near Silicon Valley in a deal finalized last year.

In this case, there's another motivation, said Northeastern's president, Joseph Aoun: Many of these campuses are focusing on older-than-traditional-age students seeking to further their educations and advance in their careers.

"The demand and the need is going to be at the lifelong-learning level," even as the supply of 18- to 22-year-olds declines, Aoun said.

"On one side you have a shrinking pool and on the other side you have an expanding pool and people need to serve the lifelong learners," he said.

Ludden said other universities and colleges are calling Northeastern for advice about how to open campuses in new markets.

"I think you're going to see more of this, because a single-campus model may not be the most viable of institutions into the future," she said.

Several other factors are driving universities to open branch campuses.

One is labor shortages, particularly in rural areas, spurring appeals from local leaders that the schools come and train workers there. The Indiana University School of Social Work this month, for instance, announced the creation of a satellite program in Lafayette, 100 miles to its north, to produce badly needed social workers trained in mental health and addiction issues.

And as remote work has emptied office buildings, there's commercial real estate available at lower-than-usual prices in in desirable markets.

The University of Southern California this year opened a $49 million, 60,000-square-foot campus in Washington, D.C., to teach undergraduate and graduate programs. Also in Washington, Johns Hopkins converted the former Newseum into a 10-story, $650 million capital campus. UCLA bought the 11-story Trust Building in Los Angeles to expand its presence downtown, part of a bid to increase enrollment.

There are other examples. Historically Black Paul Quinn College in Dallas is exploring opening a campus in California, which doesn't have any undergraduate historically Black colleges or universities.

As UCLA's expansion in downtown Los Angeles shows, branch campuses don't need to be particularly far away from their main campuses. Sacramento State University is planning to open one on the east side of its own city, where a giant development promises to significantly increase the population.

Other primary reasons that institutions open satellite campuses include the availability of outside funding and more exposure for universities not widely known outside of their traditional areas of operation, according to a study conducted for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission when it was trying to lure a research campus to Montgomery County, Maryland.

Creighton, for instance, has seen an increase in the number of students from Phoenix who are enrolling at its main campus in Omaha, according to the university.

"There's a recognition of the Creighton brand," Hendrickson said.

But spinning off campuses can also be risky. Many U.S. universities that opened a spate of campuses abroad from 2000 to 2012 based partly on the promise of generous startup money from host countries in the Middle East and elsewhere have seen those schools struggle.

Eighty-four U.S. universities now operate campuses abroad, about a quarter of all international campuses globally, according to the Cross-Border Education Research Team, or C-BERT.

Of those, 16 are in China, where geopolitics has chilled relations, and 10 are in the Middle East, where enthusiasm has ebbed. Fifty-seven international campuses run by universities worldwide have closed, including 30 American-run satellite campuses since 2004 for reasons including enrollment falling below expectations and sponsors pulling out. Yale has announced that it will end its collaboration in Singapore with the National University of Singapore in 2025.

The opening and operation of international satellite campuses "has flattened out from the burst of activity we saw 15 years ago," said Kevin Kinser, department head of education policies studies at Pennsylvania State University and C-BERT's co-founder. "The momentum for creating overseas campuses is not really what it was."

Opening a new domestic campus may lack the complications of politics, currency exchanges and cultural divides, said Kinser. "But you still have some of the same challenges, which is that it's a lot easier to manage a program within the same geographic space than across the country."

For now, however, the trend continues. Hawai'i Pacific is next considering opening a campus in the Pacific Northwest, Shaw said. With undergraduate enrollments expected to be stagnant, a spokesman said, the university's growth strategy is focused on expanding its graduate programs at its main and other campuses.

Jon Marcus wrote this article for The Hechinger Report.

Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.

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