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For historical reasons -- among them, the 19th-century desire to keep impressionable young males from the evils of the city -- many of America’s higher education institutions are located in remote or rural areas. This is often true of the small and medium-sized colleges and universities that are members of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) -- many of which were founded to ensure a presence for a particular religious denomination in territories newly settled as the nation moved westward.

These institutions are frequently major economic forces in their region. Among the largest employers and consumers of services, colleges and universities also attract external dollars into the local economy through the buying power of students, their families and visitors. As Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz noted in a 2011 paper for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “Policy makers are increasingly viewing colleges and universities as engines of local economic development.”

Of course, institutions of higher education are not only economic engines in their local community; they also enhance cultural capital. Most colleges offer lectures, concerts, film showings, and theatre productions to the public at little or no cost. A college museum may be the only such institution in the region, providing a unique resource for school children as well as adults. Athletic events are often a major attraction for the local populace, and a number of institutions now have state-of-the-art athletic facilities that, in many cases, may be enjoyed by members of the surrounding community.

Despite their outsize role in the health of their local regions, however, the symbiotic relationship of colleges with their communities has often been under-appreciated. Traditionally, “the college on the hill” might be perceived by locals as an enclave set apart, virtually bounded by an invisible fence. “Town/gown” conflicts are legendary. More recently, however, this disconnect has begun to change dramatically, as communities and their local colleges recognize that they have much to gain from mutual appreciation and collaboration toward shared objectives.

In the regional workshops that became the basis of the CIC report, Innovation and the Independent College: Examples from the Sector, the diverse and burgeoning relationships between educational institutions and their local communities were one of the most exciting developments that the CIC workshop organizers encountered. These relationships take many forms. Among the most prevalent are: colleges recognizing and celebrating the advantages of their locations, collaborations that benefit both campus and community, and educational institutions offering programs to meet specific needs in their communities.

A Great Place to Be

Until recently, colleges that were not in the educational hubs of Boston, New York, or the Silicon Valley tended to apologize, at least implicitly, for their locations. (“Only x hours from Chicago,” etc.) But a new generation of students, more environmentally concerned and more interested in a diversity of lifestyles, often finds the prospect of living in a non-urban community attractive. For their part, colleges and universities are embracing and capitalizing on the unique features of their respective locations, as they seek to articulate their distinctiveness.

During my tenure as president of Kenyon College, located in a farming community in central Ohio, I had the first-hand opportunity to experience -- and shape -- college/community interaction. At that time, the noted restaurateur Alice Waters had recently begun the Yale Sustainable Food Program. Reasoning that Yale was not in the midst of cornfields, but Kenyon was, I began to consider how we could benefit both the community and the college by focusing on local foods. Working with a rural sociologist on the faculty, Howard Sacks, we developed the Food for Thought program, a comprehensive initiative to explore food, farming, and rural life.

The program has encompassed everything from buying local produce and livestock, to offering internships on local farms, to developing curricular offerings about foodways. The college even purchased a farm where students may choose to live and work. Academic offerings explore the agriculturally based economy of Kenyon’s surrounding counties, but also emphasize the fact that food sourcing raises questions of national and global significance. The ultimate aim is an ambitious public project to develop, in collaboration with community members, a sustainable market for locally produced agricultural products and thereby contribute to the stability of the local economy.

Growing Together

In a number of instances, partnerships between colleges and their communities take the form of collaborating on facilities that will benefit both the “town” and the “gown.” Adrian College in Adrian, Mich., partnered with a local health care provider as well as a local steel manufacturer to build a medical center on the campus. This innovative arrangement is multi-faceted: Physicians from the health care organization provide sports medicine and other medical services for the college, the college offers tuition discounts to employees of the manufacturer, and students in Adrian’s health studies programs have new opportunities for experiential, hands-on learning.

Augustana College, in Rock Island, Illinois, exemplifies another type of community collaboration, in this case through partnering with a large and successful corporation in the area. Neighboring Moline, Illinois, is home to the world headquarters of Deere & Company, the manufacturers of farm and construction equipment, and to the John Deere Foundation. Augustana President Steve Bahls notes that “Hundreds of Augustana students and alumni have benefited from internships and jobs at Deere.”

Over the years, Deere also has supported construction of science facilities, a library, and a planetarium at the college. More recently, the foundation endowed a chair in data analytics at Augustana, clearly intended to benefit both the institution and the region. In the words of the foundation’s president, “We believe this could be a game-changer for the Quad-Cities community in providing skilled talent to fill this growing STEM-related need.”

Meeting the Need

Another way in which colleges and universities can benefit their community, while also enhancing their own distinctiveness, is by offering academic programs specifically tailored to the needs and opportunities of their region. An intriguing example is Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. The upstate New York region has become a hub for craft beer breweries. (Just up the road from Hartwick, for example, is the well-regarded Ommegang Brewery in Cooperstown.) In response to regional development, the college developed the Hartwick Center for Craft Food and Beverage, assisted by grant funding from both the Appalachian Regional Commission and New York State.

The center offers laboratory testing for beer and brewing raw materials, technical assistance, business planning services, market research, professional development and educational opportunities to farmers of beer-related crops and to other small businesses. Local craft food producers, for example, can take advantage of the college’s food safety testing services. All parties benefit from this kind of regional engagement. Students gain internship and research opportunities. Faculty members can participate in new research collaborations and deploy their expertise in a “real world” context. And community partners can advance their entrepreneurial efforts with the college’s assistance.

Engagement between colleges and their surrounding communities takes many more forms than those mentioned here. In some cases, small colleges are investing side by side with a local government to re-build a declining downtown. A university may start a community garden to address food insecurity in its community. Many colleges partner with hospitals, schools, and churches to meet a broad range of local needs.

America’s colleges and universities are among the most permanent physical presences in their locales. Today, a web of mutual relationships goes beyond the mere fact of proximity. Colleges are enriched in many ways by these relationships, and community partners are enabled in new ways to realize the tangible benefits of having a higher education institution in their midst.

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