Thursday, August 23, 2012


Richard Florida and Bill Bishop, in their different ways, have pointed out the increased geographic clustering of the educated/creative classes.  Broadly speaking, the creative classes tend to cluster in urban areas near oceans, leaving the vast middle “hollowing out,” as Richard Longworth put it.

This wasn’t always true.  As late as the 1970’s, middle-class life in, say, Ohio wasn’t all that different economically or politically than middle-class life in New Jersey.  (New York City was always something of an outlier.)  But various dynamics over the last generation or two have clustered demographic likes with likes.  Now there’s less economic or political diversity within counties, and much more between them.  

Most community colleges in America were built before what Bishop calls The Big Sort.  Far more were built in the decade leading up to 1970 than have been built in the four-plus since.  They were monuments to middle-class ubiquity, built on the assumption that middle-class-hood was attainable just about everywhere in the country.

I was reminded of that in looking at this story in IHE, and especially at the accompanying map.  Broad swaths of Pennsylvania don’t have community colleges in them, so some local four-year colleges are retrofitting two year programs to make up the difference.  At a time when middle-class-hood is more fervently desired than ever, its institutional incarnation is becoming harder to sustain.

The divergence shows up in a number of ways.  What many job-seeking academics refer to as the “two-body problem” is often, at least in part, a two economy problem.  Since academics tend to partner with other academics or professionals, moving two of them to one of the hollowing-out regions can be a major challenge.  It’s hard enough to find individual professional jobs in places like that; finding a pair can be daunting.  That means we tend to have severe underemployment in the metro regions -- where options exist, and people are reluctant to leave --  while colleges in the hinterlands have trouble recruiting.  

It also means that issues of cultural ‘fit’ are growing more complicated.  An article in Slate yesterday claimed that regional accents in the U.S. are actually becoming more distinct, rather than less.  I think that’s another symptom of The Big Sort.  As each region becomes more distinctly itself, it’s harder for transplants to feel at home.  Where Ohio may once have been a reasonably viable option for a young academic fresh out of grad school, it may not be quite so welcoming now.  

Place becomes even more complicated when an increasing percentage of instruction is delivered online.  At least theoretically, online instruction can be delivered from anywhere to anywhere, as long as both ends have broadband access.  

Now, with President Obama issuing a stay of deportation for people under age 30 who came to America as children, the definition of who belongs in a particular place is getting even more muddled.  (Apparently, some Republicans are considering banning Federal financial aid from any colleges that allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition.  There’s community, and then there’s community.)  Community colleges, by dint of the “community” part, are tied to particular places.  As those places become more polarized, and as instruction becomes more removed from those places, some of the baseline assumptions of the colleges come into question.  

None of this is the fault of the colleges, exactly.  But the places for which they were built -- places in which instruction happened onsite, and in which middle-class-hood was attainable almost anywhere -- are fading away, and we haven’t really come to grips with what is replacing them.

Program Note: My publisher sent me the “speak now or forever hold your peace” draft of the book, so I’ll be spending next week poring over that.  The blog will return the day after Labor Day, white shoes safely stowed away.