How to define a good college town

Livability recently released a list of the Top 10 college towns and here is some discussion of how they defined such communities:

And for starters, we need a basic definition of a college town. “True college towns are places where the identity of the city is both shaped by and complementary to the presence of its university, creating an environment enjoyable to all residents, whether they are enrolled in classes or not,” Livability’s editors write. “They’re true melting pots, where young minds meet old traditions, and political, social, and cultural ideas of all kinds are welcomed.”

That’s pretty broad. But the editors go on: In a college town, “the college is not only a major employer, but also the reason for more plentiful shops, restaurants, and entertainment businesses.” And it has to look like a college town, too: “It doesn’t seem right to call a place a college town if you can’t tell classes are in session with a quick glance at the mix of people on a busy sidewalk.”…

For example, what would Baltimore be without the Johns Hopkins University? The economic equivalent of a smoldering hole in the ground, that’s what. Or consider Rochester or Syracuse, N.Y., from the same perspective. And what about Boston and Philadelphia—are they “college towns”?

As you’ll see from the list below, most of Livability’s “best” college towns are relatively small, remote places, based on colleges that are highly ranked by the Princeton Review. Livability, true to its name, also factored in cost of living and walkability. (College towns, by their nature, should be among the most pedestrian-friendly communities America has left.)

This sounds like a very traditional use of the term “college town”: places that are heavily dependent on the university or college and that are quaint yet cosmopolitan enough. I like the contrast with the big cities which often have a variety of colleges and amenities that cater to college students, faculty, and staff.

This leads to a few thoughts:

1. How many college students today pick colleges based on it being in a “college town”? The surrounding atmosphere must matter some.

2. How have college towns been affected by the recent economic downturn and its effects on college campuses? Let’s say the college bubble bursts like some are predicting: how badly hit will college towns be? Another way to put it might be to ask how resilient these communities would be if the college/university started struggling or is this another example of what could happen to communities that rely too heavily on one industry.

3. Why not include an attitudinal component with local residents asking how much they like or approve of or even know what is going on with the college? Town and gown relationships can be difficult and simply because a place is a “college town” doesn’t mean there isn’t some tension.

4. It would be interesting to trace the history of college towns and their appeal. Historically, were there advantages to having colleges in communities that were heavily dependent on them?

5. Just because a place looks like it is where learning should take place (and this seems very constructed), does it actually improve learning?

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