Friday, September 16, 2011

The Gated Community College

If you have a kindle, or a kindle app, I really can’t recommend “The Gated City,” by Ryan Avent, highly enough. (It’s a “kindle single,” longer than an article but shorter than a book. English professors out there, what’s the nonfiction equivalent of a novella? I wouldn’t call it an “essay,” exactly. “Booklet” isn’t quite right. “Chapter” implies a larger whole, and “article” implies a larger volume. I’m stumped.)

Although it wasn’t written with community colleges in mind, it explains a lot about the community college world.

Avent argues that urban density, especially of the creative classes, is the key to improved economic productivity. (This isn’t an entirely new argument, of course -- Karl Marx famously referred to “the idiocy of rural life.”) He notes that certain cities with extremely high densities of creative people generate productivity gains wildly higher than other places. So far, so good.

Then he notes that over the last decade, population in those cities has mostly stalled or declined, while population growth has spiked in cities in which productivity growth is much slower. The culprit, which sounds abundantly right to me, is absurd housing costs in the most interesting cities. San Francisco is far more culturally interesting and economically stimulative than, say, Phoenix, but housing is much cheaper in Phoenix. Beyond a certain age -- that is to say, when they have kids -- many creatives decide that being able to afford a decent home is more important than being able to get Vietnamese food at three a.m. So they move from areas where they would have been more productive to areas where they will be less productive, because that’s where the affordable housing is.

Avent’s major policy solution is increased building in the San Franciscos and Manhattans of the world.

But to my mind, the fascinating part was the acknowledgement that creatives tend to cluster, and that the clustering comes with costs.

If your version of higher ed is the R1 world, you probably live someplace relatively interesting. Even second-tier four-year colleges and compass direction universities are often in clusters. (Boston leaps to mind, for example.) But community colleges are pretty much scattered across the country, by design.

That means that in the community college world, you’re more likely to land in a place where academics and creatives are relatively rare birds. On the upside, you may be able to afford a decent place to live. On the downside, you may feel very much like an exile.

Avent points out, correctly, that the gap between the cutting-edge places and the rest is growing, so the cultural cost of being in the hinterlands is increasing. Physically, Rockford is maybe an hour and a half from Chicago, but culturally they’re on different planets; in many ways, Chicago is closer to New York than to Rockford.

To the extent that the most productive cities are also the most income-stratified, I have real concerns for the future of the middle class. The productive growth that made it possible is rapidly deserting its natural habitat. And community colleges, often the only higher educational outposts in middle class areas, are left to swim against the cultural undertow.

Even though they’re often in much less interesting places, community colleges are defined by place much more than the rest of higher education. That tension can lead to some serious confusion as academics who were trained in interesting places land in the sticks and don’t quite know what to do with themselves. Their personal allegiances are to their disciplines, which have annual meetings in places like San Francisco or D.C., but their paychecks are from the taxpayers of wherever.

I’m not sold on the efficacy of Avent’s proposed solution -- it seems helpful enough, but far too small in scale -- but he really gets the description right. Not a bad way to spend two bucks.