Small Town College Life and the Future of Higher Ed

3 reasons why living and working at a small rural liberal arts college is the best place to envision a future for higher education.

October 31, 2016

After 10 years of living and working in a quintessential small college town, I’ve discovered (to my surprise) that rural academic life is perhaps the best possible vantage point to envision a future of higher education.

Why should this be?

We all know that to be a fan of progress is also to be a fan of the city. The rise of the city has been well documented in wonderful books such as Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, Moretti’s The New Geography of Jobs, Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion, Florida’s Who’s Your City?, and Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. As Matt Ridley has said, cities are where ideas go to have sex.

Shouldn’t anyone wanting to understand where higher ed is going choose to base themselves at a big urban university? 

Shouldn’t a student of higher education want to live in an area of high postsecondary institutional density?

All that makes sense - until that is you spend a decade or so trying to understand where higher ed is going from the perspective of working at a small liberal arts college.

Here’s why I think that small town college life just might be optimal for thinking about the future of higher ed:

1 - Small Colleges Force Diverse Collaborations:

The best part about an academic life at a small liberal arts college is the opportunity to work closely with smart people from across every academic discipline. The small scale of my college requires that I collaborate closely with people from across the institution. A normal day at work might involve spending time with a humanist, a business school professor, a social scientist, an engineering professor, and a life scientist.

This necessity to work across the institution has the benefit of exposing one to many different viewpoints and realities. I get to see firsthand how changes in the higher ed landscape appear to colleagues from different disciplinary perspectives. By collaborating across the institution, I get a better understanding of how advances in digital learning technologies can impact the teaching goals of various departments, programs, and schools.

Life at a small college also means working vertically across the institution - with people who do the hands-on work of learning innovation (the hackers) - as well as the people leading our educational efforts (the yackers). Everyone is on a first-name basis. One reason is that we all know each other from life outside of the college. We see each other at our kids’ school concerts and sporting events.  We shop together at the same grocery store.  We know each other as people with complicated and full lives - not just as colleagues at work.

Developing collegial and collaborative relationships with folks from across, and at every level, of the institution helps to get a more balanced view of how higher ed works.  You get to better understand the constraints and pressures that people operate under. People who are not in your school, center, department, division, or unit. Your perspective on higher ed widens with the relationships that you make from across the school.

2 - A Rural Academic Life Requires Close Cross-Institutional Collaboration:

Collaboration across institutions is not a “nice-to-have” if you work at a small rural college - it is a “must have”.  We depend on our colleagues from across higher education to form our professional communities of practice.  Bouncing ideas of colleagues from other schools, and learning from their projects and initiatives, is how we figure out to get better at our jobs.

One big difference between higher ed and other industries is that we actively seek to share information with our “competitors”.  The reason for that sharing is that folks in higher ed do not view the world from a zero sum perspective.  We think that all of us are involved in a shared project to improve access and quality for higher education - while hopefully figuring out how to lower costs.  We are trying to enlarge the higher ed pie - and we think that the best way to do that is to be open and honest in sharing ideas and data.

Academics at small colleges are forced to make friends with people from other colleges and universities.  If we don’t make friends with these folks we will never be able to steal their best ideas.

3 - Liberal Arts Colleges and the Future of Higher Education:

My argument here is that if you want to think about big and disruptive changes - that it helps to form these thoughts in a calm, consistent, supportive, and successful place.

We often hear that the system of higher ed is broken. If you live in a small college town, and work at a small liberal arts college, your own experience is likely to be diametrically opposite to that negative conclusion.

Higher education works well at the scale of a small liberal arts college.

An education built on the scholar-educator model, one where the people writing the books bring their students' into the knowledge creation (and therefore learning) process, is close to the ideal form of education.

Participating in education at the intimate scale of the small college, in a small college town, provides a vision of what higher education could be.

The challenge is that the small liberal arts college experience does not scale up very well.  The question we is how can we extend the benefits of a liberal arts education, of an experience built on relationships and of asking big questions, to many more people?

How can we find economic models so that the small seminar is not limited to only the most fortunate?

The idea that small town college life is optimized for making sense out of higher ed transformation has certainly come, for me at least, as a surprise. I grew up a single stop away from Fenway Park.  My undergraduate years were spent in St. Louis, and my graduate years in Providence.  My formative academic experiences were in San Francisco, Chicago, and New Haven.  I’m a city boy.  A lover of subways and harbors and big building and big institutions - of all the crazy energy and diversity and magnetic pull of the city.

Today, I cherish every opportunity to visit colleagues at peer institutions in big cities. But I find myself increasingly grateful to return back home to my small town college life.

Do you think that small college towns are the best places to think big thoughts about the future of higher education?

Have you also fallen in love with small town college life?



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