by Dominic D. J. Endicott and David J. Staley
The New York Times recently reported on the fate of many small towns dependent upon local colleges for their economic well-being. Accelerated because of the pandemic, enrollments have been falling and many of these institutions have lost students, and thus many of the customers the businesses in these small towns rely upon. The imminent arrival of the so-called “demographic cliff” — where there will be fewer traditional-aged college students and thus diminished demand — augers even more hardship for these colleges and the towns in which they are embedded, many dependent upon the local university to provide jobs and customers. “For decades, institutions of higher education provided steady, well-paid jobs in small towns where the industrial base was waning,” reports Lydia DePillis. “But the tide of young people finishing high school is now also starting to recede, creating a stark new reality for colleges and universities — and the communities that grew up around them.”
For many institutions, the only strategic option they see for dealing with declining enrollments is to double down on enrollment management: work even harder to attract traditional-aged students. Our argument in “Knowledge Towns: College and Universities as Talent Magnets” is that these institutions — and the towns in which they reside — must imagine a new strategy, one of institutional reinvention, economic development, and creative place-making.
Town and gown must work together to thrive together, but this means moving beyond the typical formula: the college provides jobs for local residents and consumers for local businesses.
One effect of the pandemic was to increase the number of remote workers such that, for knowledge workers at least, remote work is the rule rather than the exception that it was before the pandemic. These workers realized that if they could indeed work from anywhere, they might choose a location that provided a better quality of life, more affordable housing, proximity to family or to amenities. A number of “Zoom Towns” popped up across the American landscape: indeed some places enticed knowledge workers to move to their locations with monetary and other incentives.
We believe that remote knowledge workers are attracted to places that have:
- solved the environmental degradation challenges
- made the most of the surrounding natural environment and of the historical underpinnings
- created solutions for affordability
- encourage community-building to share risks and combat loneliness
- encourage lives of purpose and resourcefulness among their populations
- support ongoing skill formation across their populations
- incubate novel ideas and enterprises
Colleges and the towns in which they are embedded might create attractive places by pursuing the talent magnet strategy we outline in the book.
We also feel that the location of an academic institution in such a place is another such amenity to attract knowledge workers. But not just any academic institution: to lead a region’s talent magnet strategy, incumbent colleges and universities must redesign their purpose and mission. While they may continue to teach traditional-aged undergraduates and have athletics programs and certify workforce skills, they must also engage in a number of other strategies as part of their core mission:
- They must connect the region to the larger Knowledge Economy.
- They must educate for and encourage “lives of purpose” not only among traditional-aged students but for residents of the town or region.
- They must be physically expansive, extending outward across the town such that it becomes a “fifteen-minute campus.”
- They must become the most important “third place” for the community.
- They must work with the regional economic development team to drive a talent-attraction plan. The mentorship of students must extend outward: mentorship to knowledge workers must become a vital service offered by the college.
- They must be that institution that educates for the AI economy, that interface between machine and human intelligence.
- They must provide life-long learning services as a central part of their mission, not simply as a community enrichment.
- They must become a creativity cluster, incubating and implementing a full range of novel ideas.
- They must function as a venture capitalist fund both for faculty ideas and for entrepreneurs in the larger region.
- They must be “rewilded.” Environmental consciousness must be treated as a transcurricular value.
- They must become a “fourth place” for the community, a blending of affordable homes, workspaces, and convivial places serving students and residents in the larger community.
- They must extend urban development outward toward the town, upsetting the usual town-gown relationship.
Moving beyond an enrollment management strategy, our prescriptions for a “brain gain” strategy will transform college towns into Knowledge Towns.