Bad News for College Towns

Small college towns are idyllic settings. They can be wonderful places to learn and grow. The presence of a college brings cultural amenities that would otherwise be unavailable to towns of their size and the presence of students can give the towns a youthful energy (whatever the complaints of the townies might be about parties.) But they also suffer from the same weaknesses of any one-industry town. For one example, status in the community is determined by the employer’s hierarchy. More threateningly, the towns’ prosperity is tied to the employers’ prosperity.

As higher education suffers in the downturn and its business-model changes to adapt to information technology, the prosperity of some towns is uncertain. The Wall Street Journal covers the problems this dependance can cause in a recent article.

UK illustrates this dependance:

The University of Kentucky—which has seen state aid trimmed by $50 million, cut 300 positions. As the university has grown in recent decades, its home, Lexington, has become more dependent on it, and “now our interests are almost completely aligned,” said Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. “As their business goes, so goes ours.”

One feature of American higher education that people often forget is that it’s an export industry. While most Americans think of globalization as a threat to their business, it’s good for exporters. And it seems that globalization might help save these communities:

And to the residents of college towns facing these changes, John Burkhardt, director of the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good, offers this advice: Do everything you can to welcome the growing number of overseas students with open arms. If they’re comfortable and they tell their friends, the job they save might just be yours.

Different than the views in many communities, but an important one to remember.

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