The NYTimes, College Towns, and Our Rural Economy

Is higher ed one potential antidote to the growing rural/urban divide?

December 16, 2018

Can college towns in rural areas save our rural economy?

Probably not. Colleges and universities have enough problems of their own nowadays.

Still, we should be talking about the role that higher education plays in our national conversation about the growing rural/urban divide. This is what I was thinking as I read Eduardo Porter’s excellent analysis in the NYTimes this weekend on The Hard Truths of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy.  

The data that Porter cites on rural America is worrying.  Rural America is older, less-productive, less-diverse, less healthy, less employed, less educated, and poorer than urban America. In the last decade counties with less than 100,000 people have witnessed businesses flee, while places of a million or more have attracted large numbers of employers.

What the NYTimes does not mention is that rural areas are the home to a disproportionate number of colleges and universities.  

Last year The Atlantic asked Could Small-Town Harvards Revive Rural Economies? That article listed the benefits of colleges and universities to rural areas as a) producing ideas, technologies, and skilled workers that can lead to new businesses, and b) attracting educated faculty and staff who contribute to the local economy.

An immediate benefit to rural areas would be a public commitment to devote resources to the over 1,100 community colleges scattered around the US. Many of the community colleges are located in rural areas.

Public policies that promote postsecondary education will have the impact of bolstering rural areas. Increased access to low-cost educational loans and grants will encourage rural development, as so many schools are located in rural college towns.

What might also help with our growing rural/urban divide is if higher ed people talked up the benefits of small college town life. The reporters who write about the advantages of city life almost always live and work in cities.

A couple of years ago when our kids went off to college, my wife and I talked about leaving our own rural small college town to pursue academic opportunities in a larger city.  What keeps us in our small college town is quality of life.

Housing prices in our town are not cheap the closer you get to campus, but they are still much less expensive than similarly walkable areas in big cities.

Living in a small college town means that we never sit in traffic, we are close to a range of outdoor amenities, and that we can take advantage of a variety of campus activities. We are continually attending college sporting events, performances, and lectures. We may not be going to professional hockey games or big-name concerts, but the sports and the music are both high quality and inexpensive to attend.

Moreover, living in a small college town means that you spend time with lots of young people (the students) - and with the brilliant people who work at the college. 

Small town college life has other charms, such as watching your colleagues' kids grow up in the same schools that you send your kids.  And meeting your co-workers in the produce aisle at the supermarket.

Those who build an academic career in small rural college towns will fight to stay put. Building an academic career in a rural area can be a challenge. There is often only one or two schools to teach and work at. Trailing partners are a massive challenge in places with a single academic employer.

The financial situation at many rural schools is also challenging. The aging population of the Northeast and the Midwest, where many small college towns are located, has made it difficult for schools to recruit enough students. The higher ed cost disease and an increasingly competitive student recruiting market also makes life difficult for schools in rural areas.

Still, if you can pull it off - living and working in a small rural college town is hard to beat. We should be promoting the virtues of small college towns to retirees and young families, as well as prospective students.

College and universities are among the most important economic assets that rural areas contain. The health of these schools is tightly bound up with the prospects of the regions in which they are located.  We should be celebrating the advantages of small college town life at every opportunity.

Do you live and work in a college town located in a rural area?

What brought you to your institution?

What makes you stay?


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