Fertile ground

A Boston university sees green growing from a branch it opened in Charlotte.
By Spencer Campbell

If Northeastern University was seeking a site symbolic of why it came to Charlotte, it could have done worse than the space it moved into last year. Perched on the 11th floor of a downtown building, the Boston private school’s satellite campus overlooks two statues standing at the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets: The Future and Commerce. Northeastern opened 14,000 square feet of offices and classrooms in October, making Charlotte the first link in a $60 million chain of graduate programs it plans to open. It’s targeting cities “that were growing, diversifying in their base of industries, had attracted young professionals into the area but where educational opportunities were not as prominent as other cities,” says Cheryl Richards, Northeastern’s Charlotte dean and CEO.

Though Mecklenburg County has a larger population than Wake County, it has 14.9% fewer people with graduate and professional degrees — 76,622 compared with 90,030, according to the 2010 census. That, Richards says, is due to a wealth of research universities such as N.C. State University, UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University in the Triangle and the dearth of them in Charlotte. “There just hasn’t been anybody serving the graduate professional in the region.” Northeastern offers eight master’s degrees to meet the needs of growing sectors of the local economy, including finance, health care, energy, defense and aerospace.

Though classes began in January, she won’t reveal enrollment, contending it’s too early for the number to be meaningful. A Northeastern employee did say the school received about 270 inquiries between October and March, and Richards predicts the programs will have a few thousand students within five years. Though classes began in January, she won’t reveal enrollment, contending it’s too early for the number to be meaningful. A Northeastern employee did say the school received about 270 inquiries between October and March, and Richards predicts the programs will have a few thousand students within five years.

Her comments might leave some scratching their heads, considering all of the graduate-level, business-related programs that have set up shop in the Queen City (opposite page). “Many organizations did the same research we did that said Charlotte was underserved for graduate education,” says Steven Reinemund, dean of Wake Forest University Schools of Business in Winston-Salem. Wake opened an MBA program in suburban Charlotte in 1995 and, after spending $4 million to renovate 30,000 square feet, moved downtown in January. The new location led to a 57% increase in applications between March 2011 and March 2012, Reinemund says. Its evening and Saturday MBA programs have 159 students.

And the city already has a research university, Steve Ott says: UNC Charlotte. He is dean of its Belk College of Business. Christie Amato, his associate dean for graduate programs, points out that Northeastern’s MBA program is online. “I’m not sure they had to move from Boston to Charlotte to give students those opportunities,” she says, adding that UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State and UNC Greensboro offer online graduate business degrees.

Richards says different programs call for different platforms — some that Northeastern offers provide classroom as well as online instruction. The Charlotte campus keeps overhead low with a staff of only administrative employees by relying on Boston-based faculty. “We’re a very lean operation,” she says. “A lot of support for the region will come out of the Boston model.” Northeastern’s online MBA costs just over half of UNC Chapel Hill’s, but it’s more expensive than both of Wake Forest’s, which run about $35,000, and UNC Charlotte’s full-time program, about $16,000 for North Carolina residents. Richards thinks the school will recoup its investment within three years — though she says five might be more realistic.

There is talk of collaboration. Richards recently met with local health-care employers who anticipate hiring a large number of health-informatics workers by year-end. “Collectively, we have to work together to provide 600 trained, qualified individuals,” she says. Administrators at UNC Charlotte, which opened its $50.4 million Center City Campus last August and also offers a master’s in health informatics, agree. “It’s good for the region, generally,” Ott says. “At the same time, we have to be aware that there is competition.”

Northeastern picked Charlotte for the first of what it plans to be a chain of regional branches. But it was not the first to launch a satellite campus in the Queen City — not to mention those based there. This is how they match up with the master’s programs the Boston university offers.
Main campus in Charlotte  
Queens University  
UNC Charlotte
Regional campus in Charlotte  
Gardner-Webb University (Boiling Springs)  
Montreat College (Montreat)  
Northeastern University (Boston)  
Pfeiffer University (Misenheimer)  
Strayer University (Washington, D.C.)
University of Phoenix (Phoenix)  
University of South Carolina (Columbia, S.C.)  
Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem)