Since the economic downturn of 2008, prosperous cities and people have become more prosperous, places and people on the margins have not. These margins are geographical (a handful of major metropolitan areas account for nearly all of the job growth and wealth creation in the past decade), they are educational (people with college degrees are much more likely than those without to have rising incomes and well-being), they are about scale (cities with large populations have prospered more than rural and micropolitan areas), and they are personal (the economic recovery has disproportionately skipped working-class people and people of color).
Since the economic downturn of 2008, prosperous colleges and universities have become more prosperous, those on the margins have not. These margins are geographical (institutions in prosperous places have grown, schools in New England outside of Boston, the upper Midwest, rural areas, and foundering cities have struggled), they are educational (public and private institutions high on prestige and wealth measures have flourished, those lower have not), they are about scale (large universities have been more successful than small colleges), and they are personal (marginal colleges are more likely to serve students from families overlooked by the economic recovery).
Given these parallel economic and educational trends, and given that there is limited evidence that prosperous cities and universities are intent on improving the lot of struggling communities and colleges, it is worth asking whether marginal colleges and marginal communities can together solve each other’s problems.
One might think that this shouldn’t be a question at all, but instead an imperative or a movement. But it is a question, due in large part to the placelessness of American higher education. By placelessness, I refer to three tendencies found in the practices and curricula of institutions offering bachelor’s and advanced degrees in the United States.
First, colleges and universities strive to enroll students whose homes are distant from the institution’s location. There are benefits to having a geographically varied student body, it is true. Some are financial (out-of-state students pay out-of-state tuition at public universities, and live on-campus at independents), others are about the cultural richness of the student body. But the focus on a geographically diverse student body leads colleges to play up their similarity to other colleges elsewhere, and to diminish the specificity of the place where they are located. Further, it leads them to highlight graduates who have gone on to success somewhere besides the college’s home community, the better to attract future students from distant environs.
Second, colleges and universities offer largely placeless curricula. It is true that students in some disciplines — education, social work, nursing — develop local knowledge through their formal educations. But many disciplines have no reason to help students think and learn locally. Instead they focus on developing global citizenship or an appreciation for the culture, economy, and practices of already prosperous places. This tendency is enhanced by general education, which is almost never about creating local knowledge. Without a thoroughgoing attention to the local in the curriculum, students from far and near have no educational obligation to understand the place where they are learning.
Third, colleges and universities duplicate the amenities of their host communities, providing myriad dining, housing, entertainment, fitness, and employment options, many of which eclipse those offered off-campus and most of which represent the generic national culture and economy, not the local or particular economy. There are economic results of this duplication. But more importantly, there are educational results, in that students come to expect ready access to what is available everywhere, and to eschew what is available only in the place where they are.
I do not mean to suggest that the disjunction between education and place is solely the responsibility of colleges and universities. Many towns are suspicious of students and local colleges (prompted, to be sure, by the undisciplined behavior of students and colleges). Many employers would rather hire a graduate from a university somewhere else than from the college down the street. And most communities would rather spend economic development dollars on attracting outside employers to town, rather than supporting local job creation, including that done by the local college.
I do mean to suggest, though, that colleges and communities that are jointly on the margins should recognize their common lot and work for their mutual well-being. Doing so recognizes some essential facts of contemporary American life. More and more students are going to college within 100 miles of their homes. Fewer Americans are moving away from home for work, even when their hometowns are struggling. The sources of economic growth — investment capital, favorable state and federal policy, cultural cachet — are not going to flow naturally to places and schools on the margins. And small, particular places and small, particular colleges have their own decency and beauty not duplicated in big rich places.
Finally, if marginal places and marginal colleges make common cause, they may be able to articulate an alternative vision of a good community — one shaped by local relationships, by an understanding of the limits that shape local experience, by the insights of the local populace, and by a political economy built on an idea of the public good, not as an abstraction but as the lived experience of actual people in an actual place. That version of a good community is something worth pursuing for its own sake and for what it might offer to a national culture that seems to have abandoned each of those things.
Making common cause is not complicated but it is hard. It depends on administrators directing their actions toward and measuring their actions against the local well-being. It requires faculty bucking the trends in their disciplines and developing local knowledge through the curriculum. It requires students to embrace places that are not trendy. It calls on civic, business, cultural, and religious leaders to support the local college, to involve it in their activities, to prefer it over other options, to direct resources in its direction. And it requires people from the college and the community to jointly describe the benefit of their mutual work — to tell the stories and feature the people whose lives demonstrate the benefit of a common commitment to learning in a common place.