Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Location and Local Identity

Jeff Selingo has a thought-provoking piece about location and its effect on campuses.  It doesn’t focus on community colleges, but in some ways, they face the same issue even more starkly.

In a sense, Selingo’s piece recapitulates the battle between Tom Friedman and Richard Florida over the importance of place.  In broad strokes, Friedman argues that the internet revolution has made place irrelevant, since business can be done from anywhere with a connection.  As he puts it, the world is flat.  Florida argues that the world is actually spiky and getting spikier; paradoxically, the seeming liberation from place actually frees the talented to move to elite talent magnet cities where they can access real-life networks of peers and prospective employers.  New York City gets richer, even as Syracuse struggles.

In the data, Florida is right; a few major cities are prospering, but many of the smaller cities that prospered in the mid-twentieth century are really hurting.  If Friedman were right, Syracuse would probably prosper due to its (dramatically) lower housing costs.  It doesn’t.

Selingo’s piece looks at the effects of spatial polarization on residential campuses, and makes note of Cornell’s decision to locate its new science campus in New York City, rather than Ithaca.  He notes that the rapid geographical spread of campuses in the postwar era may be reversing now, with consolidation in major metros happening alongside real enrollment pressures in out-of-the-way places.

Selingo focuses on four-year residential institutions. From a community college perspective, the picture is somewhat complicated.

Most community colleges aren’t residential, and many have moved aggressively towards online instruction.  From that, you’d think that geography wouldn’t matter so much.  But they draw students almost entirely from within commuting distance -- even with their online programs -- and in some states, much of their funding is local, whether through appropriations or dedicated property taxes.  In other states, they have tightly-defined “service areas,” whether by county line or by “districts,” in the manner of K-12.  It’s all well and good to declare yourself liberated from “place” by technology, but when your funding is place-bound, so are you.

Selingo predicts a wave of consolidations and closures among rural colleges, and continued growth among the urban ones.  (For present purposes, let’s understand “urban” to mean “trendy urban,” such as Boston or Seattle, as opposed to, say, Detroit.)  But the picture is less clear for community colleges, since geographic convenience is actually part of their mission.  

As place-bound institutions in places that isn’t growing, non-metro community colleges are in a difficult spot.  They’re more necessary than they’ve ever been, even while they’re facing challenges of both funding and mission.  The funding challenge is straightforward enough.  Over the past decade, the source of most operating funding has changed from states and localities to students.  When you rely more on student payment and you have enrollment declines, the picture isn’t pretty.  

The “mission” challenge is more subtle, but in some ways, more vexing.  When local industry isn’t hiring much, whether because of long-term structural changes, short-term cycles, or both, the “workforce development” role becomes more complicated.  In the long term, it’s clear that abandoning education is not the path to prosperity.  But in the short term, a graduate with debt and either no job, or the same job she had before she started, isn’t better off economically.  (On the other hand, the transfer mission has never looked stronger.)  It’s difficult to feed a local economy that isn’t hungry.  

Hiring by the college itself can be difficult in out-of-the-way or unfashionable places.  Many academics travel in pairs, and can’t or won’t relocate unless both partners can find something.  In higher-turnover roles, moving to an area without many other similar potential employers is high risk.  That’s probably why it’s easier to recruit talent to a new tech startup in New York City than in Syracuse, even with the higher housing costs in New York City; if your tech startup goes bust in NYC, you have a good chance of catching on somewhere else without having to move.  If your startup goes bust in Syracuse, you’ll probably have to move.  Particularly for people with school-age children, this is not a trivial distinction.  Over time, difficulty in recruiting from the outside can lead to a certain provincialism.

Community colleges in America are geographically egalitarian, in an era that’s becoming geographically polarized.  But they’re even more place-bound than most four-year campuses, given their intensely local identities.  For the ones in hot locations, that works out reasonably well.  For the rest, the tensions are getting stronger.