• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.



Beware of generalizations.


September 20, 2015

There’s a wonderful line, variously attributed, that the future is here; it’s just unevenly distributed.  

According to experts on such things, millennials and their successors have abandoned the concept of “ownership” in favor of the “sharing economy.” They’ve moved away from cars and suburbs, favoring instead bike rentals and cites. They’ve abandoned the concept of home ownership, instead preferring to rent, and abandoned the idea of buying fixed media, instead preferring to stream.  

That last one strikes me as pretty much incontestable. The rest, though, I wonder.

I’ve been reading Move, by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, which makes most of those claims. But they aren’t unique to her; read Vox on any given day and you’ll get pretty much the same thing. You’ll see striking pieces about gentrification, “artisanal” as a prefix, and the superior wisdom of the twentysomethings who have jettisoned the sterile suburbs and who are solving the problems of urban life with apps.

And I’m thinking, hmm.

Even correcting for techno-optimism, Kanter and Vox seem to have a pretty good explanation for what you’ll see in certain neighborhoods of Boston, New York, or D.C. But they utterly fail to explain most of America.  

Community college leaders need to be attuned to questions of transportation and demographics, not least because most community college students commute. With service areas defined geographically, and with community colleges spread around the country -- not just clustered in the thriving metros -- the sector bridges the cutting-edge areas and the overlooked ones.  

Most community colleges were built in the sixties, and their architecture reflects that. (They’re often variations of “brutalist,” of which the less said, the better.) They’re built for students who drive.  That’s still true now, even with the advent of online classes.  Public transportation remains crucial for that very reason. (To be fair, Kanter is well aware of that.) Most students who take online classes also take onsite classes, so geography still matters. And the geographic distribution of community colleges encompasses both the “spiky” growing metros and everywhere else.

That’s why I’m wary of generalizing from, say, hipsters in Brooklyn to the rest of America. The future may have hit Brooklyn first, or Brooklyn might just be different. My sense is that the future looks very different in other places.  

And I’m wary of generalizing from post-Great Recession behavior to long-term cultural change. Have millennials given up on home ownership, or did a lousy job market push it out of reach? (The areas with strong job markets are often too expensive for homeownership.  Boston’s Back Bay is lovely and hopping, but affordable, it is not. Memphis is affordable, but hopping, it is not.) Going carless in Manhattan is one thing; going carless in suburbia is something else.  

Much of the mid-to-late twentieth century in the US featured wealth spreading geographically. The major metros struggled, the suburbs rose, and smaller cities had their heydays. Now wealth is scurrying back to the major metros. If you never look outside the major metros, it’s probably easy to fall for narratives of breathtaking progress, since that’s what you see around you. But everywhere else, the story is much less sanguine.  

In other words, it isn’t that Brooklyn is years ahead of Detroit.  It’s that Brooklyn and Detroit are heading in different directions altogether. It’s hard to be a carless hipster in a city with declining mass transit, high unemployment, and a street grid defined by highways.

The spread of community colleges was part and parcel of the geographic spread of wealth, and they were built largely to enable it. With wealth re-concentrating in a few places, it’s little wonder that community colleges in the rest of the country are struggling. Their underpinnings are shifting. That brings challenges for which they weren’t prepared, and for which many of the usual strategies won’t work.

I enjoy the walkable neighborhoods of Boston and New York. Were I twenty years younger, childless, and well-employed, I’d probably live there myself. This isn’t hipster-bashing. It’s wariness of attributing to attitudes and enlightenment what is caused by economics. It’s not the future that’s unevenly distributed.



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