The New American College Town

So we are sitting on the airport tarmac in Elko, Nevada getting ready for our next visit to Saint George, Utah, then up to Redding, California, and finally over to Ashland, Wisconsin.

What these several placebound locations have in common is that they are surrounded by splendid isolation wrapped around a higher learning campus culture. This cultural paradigm is the DNA of the New American College Town, far from the venerable heritage of Cambridge with Harvard dating back 350 years and the other Ivies – Brown, Princeton, Yale, et al. These New American College Towns also share in common a meaningful relationship with their home college or university.

Whether you are a town without a college or a college without an authentic relationship with your home town, your institution needs to be on the lookout for College Town co-development opportunities. What we know about College Towns is that they serve as magnetic attractors for outside investment and future co-development. These College Town partnerships are typically the pistons of downtown economic and workforce development – i.e., key drivers in the new creative economy.

So, why did we write our new book, The New American College Town: Designing Effective Campus and Community Partnerships? First, because of the paucity of independently verifiable data to track performance benchmarks for contemporary College Towns. This scarcity of solid data challenged us to drill down to discover underlying circumstances and conditions. Simply put, at the end of the day, we wrote this book because there was no book about the new American College Town.

Increasingly, we found ourselves flying into small rural regional airports to stir the mix of demographic, economic, and enrollment megatrends. While we were aware of several so-called College Town lists, we found no substantive compendium of contemporary College Towns – the kind of data that leads to economic predictability and attracts external investment. Over time, our contemporary College Town journey next identified new metropolitan areas of investment in such unlikely places as Rowan University and Jersey City, New Jersey.

So what we learned is that we needed to first identify and break down historic town-gown barriers and impediments. In many cases, these idiosyncratic conflicts centered on downtown student behavior, faculty consumers, and, importantly, the willingness of the local community to be welcoming to both students and faculty.

Significantly, we found that contemporary College Towns were all about building mutual trust relationships and a level of engagement and commitment beyond the ordinary. The simple truth is that the best contemporary College Town projects are based on a higher level of civic engagement.

If the first time the new College President meets the Mayor or Town Manager is over editorial differences in the local newspaper, that spells trouble for both parties.

Typically, new American College Towns host only one or two colleges and universities, so the chain of connectivity is critical for all parties involved. This requires the College President to become a visible member of the campus community. In other cases, it requires the Town Administrator to step up and serve as a sounding board for new programs, services, and other initiatives. This co-branding scenario extends beyond academic programs and enlists the active engagement of student interns, field practicums, and research fellows – focused on improving the quality of life both on campus and downtown.

One of the common complaints about rural first-generation College Towns is that “there is no there”. It was not yet a destination. That said, colleges and universities that figure out how to stimulate the synergy of their municipal relationships will increase the value of the surrounding real estate and, in so doing, improve the lives of town citizens.

Uniquely, colleges create a downtown College Town vibe – the kind of cultural affinity that spins off fine, visual, and performing arts and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics connecting with the Arts). What we also learned is that contemporary College Town projects provide a natural foundation and framework for developing mutual growth through co-development strategies.

Our JHU readers are also likely to ask us, “What does our research tell us is the lasting impact or take away of new College Towns?” The answer is that the best College Town projects are intentional, planful, purposeful and follow a design, rather than a random patchwork of idiosyncratic initiatives.

College Town best practice strategies over-deliver and under-promise. There is a tendency to overstate the near term economic impact. Having said that, in the preponderance of cases, College Towns are a major employer.

As a general rule, College Town Projects are best dealt with in person – up close and personal. Having said that, there needs to be a significant focus on social media infrastructure understanding the importance of the audience, the message, and the media.

College Presidents need to be forthright in sharing strategic planning and, particularly, plans for campus expansion. Over the course of our exploration, we discovered a broad range of best practice exemplars that provide benchmarks and milestones for calibrating College Town development monetization, commercialization and mutual growth leading to net profitable joint ventures. These strategic partnerships often involve both public and private institutions, municipal agencies, business corporations, and civic organizations.

Arthur Godfrey once said, “If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it.” The same adage holds true for colleges that have the good fortune to be located in new American College Towns.

Order The New American College Town: Designing Effective Campus and Community Partnerships – published on November 19, 2019 – at this link:

James E. Samels is President and CEO of The Education Alliance and Senior Partner in the law firm of Samels Associates, Attorneys at Law. He is the co-author of The New American College Town: Designing Effective Campus and Community Partnerships, his eighth book with Johns Hopkins University Press.