You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Let’s say that you are an alternative academic (alt-ac). Someone determined to build a career around ideas -- teaching, research, and service -- outside of a traditional faculty role.

What sort of geography should you target for your job search?

What type of college or university should you aim for, and ideally where would you want that school to be located?

My recommendation is that you fight against the back to the city movement, resist the lure of the suburbs, and try to make your way to a rural college town.

This is an argument for alt-acs to make a conscious choice to swim against the larger population tide.

Today, the percentage of the population that resides in rural counties (with a population of 50,000 or fewer) is about 15 percent. At the start of the 20th century about half of all Americans could be described as living in a rural area. Going all the way back to 1790 that figure would be over 90 percent. 

While it is something of a myth that everyone wants to move to the city to build their careers -- as the real growth continues to be in the suburbs where over 50 percent of Americans live - we seldom hear about those who choose to go rural.

Alternative academics, however, just might be smart enough to make an alternative geographic choice.

Here are 3 reasons why alt-acs should consider building their career at a college or university located outside of a big city or sprawling suburb:

Reason 1 - Impact:

The life of an alternative academic is challenging. Our work is often at the fuzzy line between educators and administrators. We are (usually) not faculty -- at least tenure track faculty -- but we are different than what is traditionally thought of as higher ed staff.

It may be that if you are carving out a new role at a college that the best sort of college to work at is a small institution -- or at least within a smaller town. The fewer people there are, the more impact one person can have.

This is not an argument against the benefits of density and scale.  Big cities and sprawling suburban geographies host some of the nation’s finest institutions of postsecondary learning.  The argument is that the contributions of individuals may stand out more when there are fewer individuals to contribute.   

At a small school,or in a small town, it is likely that you will know most everybody.  Your networks will extend outside of the department or center that you work - and therefore so will your influence.  Early career alternative academics who are ambitious and hard working can stand out in a smaller place in a way that is difficult at bigger schools, or in areas with lots of colleges.

Reason 2 - Social Capital:

Are small college town schools and universities located in rural areas also places of high social capital? This is a question that deserves some analysis.

My hypothesis is that the nature of rural academic life also encourages the development of concentrated social capital. The reason for this, I think, is that working in rural higher education also means working within a dense set of interpersonal connections. At a rural school you tend to know your colleagues in settings beyond campus life.  You see the people you work with in other settings -- at K-12 school functions and at the grocery store -- and there is a high likelihood that you will run into people you work with outside of work.

What all this means is that there is little anonymity in rural academic life. These dense social connections tend to benefit, I think, those of us working to carve out alternative academic roles. We have opportunities to build relationships with colleagues in multiple settings.  We get to know traditional faculty and administrators in settings both on and off campus. These cross-institution networks can serve us well as we work to build campus programs and initiatives - as networks facilitate information sharing and trust.

Reason 3 - Cost of Living and Quality of Life:

So my final pitch for alternative academics to target their job search in rural areas and small college towns is about money. Specifically, rural life is almost more affordable than urban and suburban living.

Housing costs are like everything else. They are a function of supply and demand. Housing costs are highest where the demand outstrips the supply.

This is less of an issue at most of our rural colleges and universities. Rural areas are, by definition, low density. There is usually land -- and housing -- either near or within a quick commute to a small town college or rural university.

The under-appreciated reality is that some of the best quality of life can be found in and around our small college towns and rural university campuses. Beyond a lower cost of living, rural colleges tend offer a range of cultural amenities. There is no end of performances, talks, and events one can attend at almost every institution. (Journalists, and the national publications that they write for, tend not to be based in rural areas. That is why much of what we read ends up extolling the virtues of urban life -- while ignoring the benefits of rural living).

The combination of lower living costs and lots of cultural options on campus should be appealing to everyone -- including alternative academics. Cities get all the ink as playgrounds for the creative class. But what if one could get many of the advantages of a city - including a concentration of smart people and many cultural amenities -- in a place that is more affordable? Wouldn’t that be worth considering?

Are you a rural alt-ac?

Why did choose to build your alternative academic career outside of the suburban / urban mainstream?


Next Story

Written By

More from Learning Innovation