Brick-and-Mortar is in a crisis. That’s not big news. It has already been in a crisis for a decade. Amazon has been kicking retail Brick-and-Mortar butt. The digital revolution is changing how we consume most things. Many are proclaiming: Brick-and-mortar is dead! Long live digital!

Not so fast. Book stores and electronics stores may be in trouble, but I wouldn’t write off all brick-and-mortar. In fact, some trends are pointing towards the very non-trivial value consumers put on the brick-and-mortar experience. For example, on-site experiential marketing spends are growing annually across most corporate sectors. And a particularly surprising trend has been the growth in brick-and-mortar library usage.

The key underlying factor across the brick-and-mortar perseverance is the “experience” value or “service” value, versus “goods” value. Public library attendance has been increasing because of the amount of programming (services) at public libraries has increased (programs for kids or internet/computer availability).




Meanwhile, university library usage is rapidly decreasing, because the focus is still on the “goods” as tools of research (students would rather look things up on-line these days).




So the crisis of brick-and-mortar will not be solved with a binary open/close solution, but rather with a “how you use it” approach. And it is this approach that I would like to use as a lens for interpreting the value of a brick-and-mortar university campus. The following are the key values (and revenue generators) of the brick-and-mortar campus of the future.

Traditional(ish) University Campus

I don’t want to discount completely the more traditional roles of universities — educational and research facilities, labs, access to brilliant minds, collaboration hubs, etc. (Notice how I didn’t mention lectures.)

In light of the chasm between what online can and cannot offer, the campus itself and the on-campus experience will increasingly become an important differentiator. Online education cannot offer the labs, workshops, experiential learning, physical collaboration environment, and other facilities that are often optimal for many subjects and disciplines. Furthermore, society has not yet excelled at socializing people online. Brick-and-mortar educational campuses still have the monopoly on providing the kind of social microcosm that is ideal for students to practice and develop soft skills. Throw in some flipped classrooms, experiential learning programs, etc., and the campus can reclaim significant educational chops.

The campus, as far as a 4-year college is concerned, is far from dead. Arguably, the real estate becomes ever more important as online education becomes increasingly commoditized and transferable. It is the on-campus experience (even in small doses) that remains paramount to maintain brand identity.

Glocal Campus

You noticed that the title of this post says Global, while I haven’t mentioned it yet. Adding global to the concept unlocks new value channels and uses for the campus to even better leverage and monetize brick-and-mortar assets. (why do I always feel a twinge of guilt when I use “monetize” in a blog post about education? should I? or am I just brainwashed to think that education must be a holy non-profit pursuit?)

What is a global brand in higher education? I would say that any top ranked (top 100) university constitutes a global higher education brand – whether they market globally or not.

A global campus can leverage a global brand in the local region of the brick-and-mortar campus. For example, the top-ranked Spanish university on the Times World University Ranking is ranked at #164. If a Top 100 university opens a brick-and-mortar campus on Spanish soil, the “brand” by default becomes the top university in Spain, opening itself to the demand of 1,500,000 Spanish university students. In contrast, without having a local, brick-and-mortar campus, the university lacks a local anchor for its marketing and brand recognition. There is a big difference between being #90 in the world and #1 in Spain. The latter “sounds” better, especially to a Spanish student.

Study Abroad Destination

Study abroad programs vary significantly. Some are small and relatively affordable language-oriented not-for-profit programs. Some are not-for-profit “scams” where expensive universities outsource the programs to low-cost international schools and charge their student 5x the price for the credits. And there are many others types (not all bad). Mostly however, study abroad programs share in common their lack of academic rigor, with the organizational and administrative parties tacitly approving of the student’s “international party vacation”. After all, students are the paying customers and they only live once, right?

Aside from the above rant, a global brick-and-mortar campus immediately opens up new uses for dorms and academic spaces – for students from other campuses (in the case of a branch campus or a global network university), or from partner universities abroad. By focusing on providing specific study abroad programming, the brick-and-mortar campus university effectively cuts out the middleman organization that usually does the organizing. Offering a full and scalable package, with housing, professors, experiential programming and cultural activities, puts brick and mortar to use — especially since study abroad is all about the experience.

Pathways Destination

Consider the very cool idea of an international campus with an international student body. Many universities claim internationally diverse communities, but can you name a campus that is more than 50% international? A more international student body creates a diverse atmosphere of integration—campus culture is opened and freed from cultural peer pressure. A truly global student body will produce new, creative traditions to combine with the more classic ones, such as sports. Students coming for shorter on-campus stints will add an exciting atmosphere of dynamic communication and collaboration. In such an energetic environment, longer-term students will be much less likely to fall into patterns of complacency and social cliques. 

With the globally mobile student population over 4 million and growing, the global pathways business is big and getting bigger. Universities outsource recruitment and preparation of international students, often using off-site facilities and for-profit providers.

A global brick-and-mortar campus is an ideal setting for pathways programs. With global university partnerships in place, the campus can be home to multinational pathways programs, preparing students with dedicated staff to train students in English and other subjects. The pathways students would cohabit the same dorms as the glocal students and the study abroad students, creating a truly dynamic international student community.

Rotational Campus

Traveling the world is not for everybody. But the increasing internationalization of everything corporate and cultural makes student travel very attractive to many and explains the increasing popularity of study abroad.

NYU is pioneering the global network university. Minerva Academy has designed its business/educational model around student rotation through international campuses. No longer does 4 years on the same, secluded campus seem like the best educational or socializational option.

Branch campuses are old news and one of their main problems is the risk associated with them – “what if they are not popular enough with the home campus community?” However, a global campus that has multiple activations and revenue streams, as described above, can add great value to the university’s value proposition. Going to an American university in a small town in the “middle of nowhere” (there are many great ones that fit this mold) may sound intimidating to a student who wants to be integrated into the world community. However, a university with a global brick-and-mortar foot print can offer the world to its students.

Brand Anchor

The role of experiential marketing across industries can be tied to the role of the campus and campus experience as a brand anchor for universities. After all, millennials need a nice background for all of those selfies.

Many aspects of the Brick-and-Mortar campus, from the campus photos on the website, to the lifestyle experience in the dorms, to the sport programs on campus, contribute to the brand identity of the university and the self-identity of its students. So the brick-and-mortar campus is a significant part of the marketing package of the university — hence, the age old tradition of visiting colleges to find the “right fit”. The combination of tangible brick-and-mortar qualities with a unique social experience creates a brand that students, faculty, and alumni can wear with pride.

In fact, I would suggest that the brick-and-mortar brand qualities go beyond the campus itself, and have viral marketing characteristics. Online students are much more likely to have school pride if there is a beautiful campus (or a great sports team) backing their degree, even if they have only spent a single semester, one week, or just one day on campus. The premium quality of the brick-and-mortar campus will correlate with their confidence in the degree—looks matter.

In the context of a onsite/online hybrid model, where as much as 95% of the educational delivery can be delivered online and paid for in bitcoin, the brick-and-mortar campus acts as the gold standard backing a degree. In fact, the brick-and-mortar campus can be used to drive the university’s online education marketing, with special campus visits, part-time campus programs, visits to team games, and other hybrid programming.

Global Online Brand Anchor/Gateways

This is an offshoot of the Brand Anchor section, but I thought that the global online market requires some more attention. Eventually, even the Europeans will start using the internet and online education there will grow at a quick pace.

The value of global brand anchors/gateways grows exponentially once an online learning offering is combined with the brick-and-mortar campus. This way, the reputation built with the permanence of the brick-and-mortar becomes the foundation for the online program marketing. Combining a global reputation with a local presence, offers a powerful combination of the mythical and the tangible. If an American university builds a beautiful campus in Spain, it can populate a 3,000-person campus with a combination of students from the US, Europe, South America, the Middle East and Asia. At the same time, having a brick and mortar campus, allows it to market an online program backed by a premium brand with a permanent local presence–moving the perception from a “theoretical and mysterious” online education, to a real degree that is both global and local.