As urban colleges and universities thrive, some non-urban institutions struggle to keep up

In his essay, “Location, Location, Location. Urban Hot Spots Are the Place to Be,” The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Jeffrey Selingo picks up on a comment in the recent Moody’s Investors Service report on higher education.

In case you haven’t heard, Moody’s issued a negative outlook for the higher education sector in the United States. But there’s a silver-lining for some institutions—mainly for institutions located in urban areas. According to Selingo,

Among private colleges, Moody’s found “a growing disparity between tuition-dependent colleges and market-leading universities with diverse revenue sources. The market-leading institutions tend to be in urban areas, according to Moody’s analysts. “Rural institutions are doing less well,” Dennis Gephardt, a vice president at [Moody’s], told me. “There’s stronger demand for urban institutions.”

Before we go further, we should probably note that Selingo is never especially clear about what an “urban institution” would be. It seems that “urban” seems to mean either “not rural” or “in a large metropolitan area.”  Grinnell and Cornell, for example, are listed as the exceptions to the rule that non-urban institutions are not thriving. I suspect that my own institution, which is located just west of Chicago but well within the bounds of the metro area, would count as an “urban institution,” to use Gephardt’s term, but just barely.

Selingo outlines a number of reasons that the higher ed landscape is dotted with so many rural institutions, including a history of ensuring access to hitherto more-place-bound students and a pattern of lawmakers insisting on institutions of higher education in or near their districts. (He leaves out, though, the fact that many founders of colleges and universities wanted to keep students away from the vices and distractions of cities.)

Selingo also notes a number of advantages that accrue to institutions in urban locales: Faculty are attracted to areas with excellent schools and a diversity of employment options for partners. And students

need access to off-campus opportunities to apply their classroom learning in the real world during the academic year, through internships or research projects. Those hands-on opportunities, which increasingly differentiate colleges from one another, require a vibrant local economy with a diversity of employers and nonprofit organizations.

If this were a longer post or article, now would be the time to cue a broader discussion of “global cities,” which would explain in greater detail why the opportunities so important to faculty and students are, as Selingo puts it, “flowing to a more select group of cities and urban areas.” It would also demonstrate that these trends are not likely to shift in any major way any time soon. The most rudimentary version of this argument suggests that global dynamics, rather than encouraging diffuse settlement patterns, actually encourage more dense settlement patterns in cities that become sites for coordinating global economic activity (i.e., coordinating geographically dispersed but still socially concentrated capital). The more complex, subtle, and nuanced versions of that argument only give more robust explanations for the pattern that Selingo observes.

Whatever position you adopt on cities and globalization, it will lead you to the conclusion that urban areas will continue to concentrate the kinds of opportunities that Selingo believes are key to the difference that Moody’s observes between urban and non-urban institutions. So this leads us to the question, “What can colleges and universities that are not in urban areas do if they want to access the advantages of a vibrant urban locale?” Selingo lists a few options. Unfortunately, I think three of them are really not very promising:

Two other ideas are more promising. They focus on expanding programming and facilities footprints in urban areas:

  • Institutions can “form partnerships with employers in urban areas and then build more-flexible academic schedules that allow students to spend less time on the campus while they gain work or research experience elsewhere.”
  • Institutions can also build new satellite facilities in cities. Selingo mentions Cornell’s plans to build a new “applied sciences graduate campus in New York City.” This example has the strength of showing that “even Cornell” recognizes its disadvantages. But the weakness of the example is that few institutions have the resources that Cornell has, leaving open the question of how actually-cash-strapped rural institutions might pull this off. Perhaps it would be worth exploring consortium and partnership approaches to this kind of programming.

(I was going to point out that neither of these promising approaches is likely to help an institution to compete for better faculty. But then I remembered that the academic job market in most fields means that on the whole faculty candidates aren’t actually that picky…)

The upshot is this: It is likely that urban institutions will be increasingly advantaged over non-urban institutions. In order to strengthen their brands, non-urban institutions should build partnerships, policies, programs, and facilities that allow greater number of their students to access the advantages of urban areas. And urban institutions should do everything they can to enhance that aspect of their identity.

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