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The Decline of the Laundromat and the Future of Higher Education

On the historical price of appliances, the disappearance of computer labs, and the concentration of privilege.

August 1, 2017
 
 

It’s weird what sorts of stories catch our eye. 

Sometimes, I’ll read something that I just can’t shake.  I’ll learn about a trend or a statistic, and then I’ll keep wondering about what that information means for the future of higher education.

The latest trend that I think must somehow illuminate the future world of colleges and universities has to do with laundromats.  A recent article in The Atlantic called The Decline of the American Laundromat related the following statistics:

"According to data from the Census Bureau, the number of laundry facilities in the U.S. has declined by almost 20 percent since 2005, with especially precipitous drops in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles (17 percent) and Chicago (23 percent)."

The reasons that the author of The Atlantic piece gives for the decline in laundromats is the increasing value of the buildings in which they are located.  In densely populated areas with rising property prices, such as San Francisco or Boston or New York (what Richard Florida calls superstar cities), coin operated laundromats simply can’t generate enough revenues.  They are being replaced by either upscale housing or retail businesses with high per-square foot sales.  This is leaving city residents who depend on laundromats with few options to get their sheets, towels, and clothing cleaned.

So, is there anything that we can extract from the laundromat story about where higher ed might be going?  Any weak signals that we can amplify?

The decline of laundromats makes me think of the disappearance of physical places where people once gathered. On campuses, the best example is probably computer labs.  Many colleges once had game rooms, but like arcades everywhere they now gone.

When I was in college we used to go each week to watch movies chosen by the university film society - called the Filmboard.  I never hear about my older daughter going to campus movie screenings, as she and her friends seem to gather around laptops to watch video.

Of course, there is the whole question of the long-term viability of much of our physical spaces.  Who is not fascinated by dead malls - and deadmalls.com?  

Who amongst us has wondered if the future of online education and physical classrooms will one-day mimic that of online shopping and bricks-and-mortar retail?

What about Moore's Law?  (Or whatever the equivalent law that exists for durable appliances). Could one reason for the decline in laundromats be the drop in real prices for home washing machines and dryers? 

A washer and dryer in 1953 cost an average of $495 dollars.  In today's dollars that amount would be $4,541 dollars. 

Could laundromats be following the trajectory of computer labs, disappearing because the real cost of owning the technology (as opposed to renting or using it) is going down?

Not all coin operated laundry machines are going away.  They remain a fixture of residence halls, even if most are now moving from coin payments to being able to pay with your student ID.

What the decline of American laundromats really tells us about the future of higher education is a story that we don’t like to talk about.  That is the story of increasing inequality.  Of the gap between those who can afford an ever-increasing bounty of amenities, and of others in our society who are increasingly excluded from these advantages.

For those that can afford higher education, the experiences that they will have in college are improving.  Everything is better at my college today than when I was an undergraduate from 1987 to 1991.  The teaching is better.  The classrooms are better.  The dorms are nicer.  The food is much much better.

My expectation is that the quality of higher education will continue to improve, but these improvements will be enjoyed by an ever fewer numbers of the very most privileged of students.

The decline of the American laundromat story, I fear, another indication of the concentration of privilege.  This story, I suspect, will be the master trend that will shape the contours of U.S. postsecondary education over the next few decades.

How would you build a narrative around the history of the laundromat, and the future of higher education?

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