The iconic image of the American college town as a bucolic New England village is rapidly undergoing a makeover as students are increasingly choosing campuses in cities that are turning their urban cores into centers for “eds and meds.”
Today, in the 20 largest U.S. cities, a college, university or medical institution is among the top 10 private employers. At least half of those top employers in five cities — Washington, Philadelphia, San Diego, Memphis and San Jose — are educational and medical institutions.
Even in the District, where enrollment caps have restricted the growth of universities despite growing student demand, attitudes about the role higher education can play in economic development are shifting.
“For a long time, higher ed was perceived by some in Washington as an annoyance,” said John C. Cavanaugh, president of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. “But with federal contracting in decline, people are increasingly seeing higher ed as the ticket to the future.”
What has long been said about real estate is also true for colleges: Location matters. Students and their parents have typically scrutinized a school’s place on a map with regard to the surrounding amenities: Are there enough restaurants and bars? Is it close to the beach or the mountains?
But a college’s location is about more than amenities and recreational opportunities for students. Even in a virtual age, it matters more than ever to graduates’ success in the job market. As off-campus experiences increase in importance to a student’s career, those who attend schools in out-of-the-way places often struggle to find the kinds of internships and work experiences nearby that are necessary to gain the skills employers want.
Last year, when Sweet Briar College initially announced it would close, the college’s president lamented to a reporter that the campus, outside Lynchburg, Va., was “30 minutes from a Starbucks.”
As the creative juices and financial rewards of the economy cluster around two to three dozen communities across the country, nearby colleges are poised to be some of the biggest beneficiaries. The knowledge that flows back and forth between the local economy and higher education fuels the growth of intellectual capital for both sides, providing students with unparalleled opportunities for research projects, internships and good jobs after graduation.
“We see the city as our laboratory for our students,” said Scott Bass, American University’s provost. “Being in D.C. is an enormous advantage for our students in their interactions with faculty, who are very connected to the broader community and to top thinkers.”
In Tenleytown, there are daily reminders of how AU uses its location in the nation’s capital as a key selling point. The university’s shuttle buses are ubiquitous, each emblazoned with a phrase about its students, faculty or alumni. AU’s students log more than 100,000 service hours each year, and faculty appear in the news every 24 minutes.
Compared with similarly ranked schools outside of a major city or suburb, urban institutions such as American University have broad advantages tied to their location through the faculty and students they are able to recruit, as well as the internship opportunities they can offer. (Eighty-four percent of AU students intern at least twice before they graduate.)
Kyle Anderson, an AU senior, has completed four internships, most of them during the academic year. Not only was the competition for those intern spots less intense during the school year, the experiences also helped him better prepare for the demands of the workplace, because he learned to juggle a job and classes at the same time.
“If I had gone to school outside a city, I couldn’t design a schedule that would allow me to work a few days a week on the days in between,” he said. “I was applying what I learned as I was learning it.”
Moody’s Investors Service, which examines the financial health of colleges, is particularly bullish on urban institutions. Dennis Gephardt, a vice president at Moody’s, specifically cited AU as a school that has benefited from being located in the nation’s capital and a few blocks from the more prestigious Georgetown University. “Rural institutions are doing less well,” Gephardt said, “because they are not as popular with students.”
An important part of going to college is building the foundation of a social and professional network students can use in starting a career. That network can be constructed at a college anywhere through classmates, professors and alumni, but a school in a large community or metro area can give students opportunities to extend the network well beyond the campus. This wider network of contacts can provide even students at less prestigious colleges an extra boost in the job market that the name on the degree alone can’t furnish.
To help students and their families locate the places that offer a mix of off-campus learning experiences and post-graduation jobs, the American Institute for Economic Research publishes two lists annually ranking college towns, though they don’t get nearly as much attention as the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.
The institute’s College Destinations Index ranks the top 75 metro areas based on the four categories that most affect a student’s off-campus experience: student life, economic health, culture and employment opportunities. The institute’s Employment Destinations Index ranks the top 75 metro areas based on eight economic and quality-of-life factors that motivate job seekers to move.
What may interest students most about these two surveys are the cities that ranked high on both lists because they have a vibrant economy that can provide opportunities outside of the classroom, as well as full-time jobs after graduation. The overlap between the two lists includes some of the usual suspects such as Washington and San Francisco, and smaller cities such as Austin and Raleigh, N.C. It also includes Fort Collins, Colo.; Gainesville, Fla.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and State College, Pa.
About a million recent college graduates cross state lines each year for work and recently seem more often to be migrating west. According to a LinkedIn analysis of its members’ online profiles, after earning their bachelor’s degree from universities on the East Coast, nearly three times as many people moved to take jobs in San Francisco than West Coast graduates moved to New York City.
Some cities are natural talent magnets for college graduates. The LinkedIn analysis found that graduates were willing to move the farthest for jobs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Phoenix. Meanwhile, other cities in the LinkedIn study — Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Baltimore — were able to better retain students after graduation because of the nearby industries that attracted them there in the first place. Those cities also have a high concentration of colleges.
“An urban college town is the glue that holds smart and creative people together,” said Cavanaugh, the president of the metropolitan higher-education consortium, “and that’s good for students at the colleges in D.C. and for the regional economy.”
College towns and employment hubs
These towns and cities were ranked high by the American Institute for Economic Research for their outside-the-classroom opportunities and as top destinations for students to live and work after graduation.
MAJOR METRO AREAS
3. San Francisco
4. New York
7. Minneapolis-St. Paul
MIDSIZE METRO AREAS
1. San Jose
3. Raleigh, N.C.
5. Columbus, Ohio
6. Hartford, Conn.
SMALL METRO AREAS
1. Ann Arbor, Mich.
2. Fort Collins, Colo.
3. Gainesville, Fla.
4. Lincoln, Neb.
5. Trenton, N.J.
6. Huntsville, Ala.
7. Albany, N.Y.
10. Syracuse, N.Y.
1. Ithaca, N.Y.
2. Iowa City
3. State College, Pa.
4. Champaign-Urbana, Ill.
5. Columbia, Mo.
6. College Station, Tex.
7. Lafayette, Ind.
8. Bloomington, Ind.
9. Morgantown, W.Va.
Source: American Institute for Economic Research 2015 Employment Destinations Index and 2014-15 College Destinations Index
Selingo is a regular contributor to The Washington Post’s Grade Point blog. This article is adapted from his new book, “There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow,” to be published April 12 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.