Chicago area businesses looking to move from suburban campuses

The suburbanization boom after World War II was not just about the movement of residences to the suburbs: it included a large migration of jobs and business headquarters to suburban locations, often large “campuses.” Crain’s Chicago Business suggests this trend may now be going in reverse as Chicago area business look to leave these suburban campuses:

Fleeing urban decay, companies like Motorola Inc., Allstate Corp. and Sears Roebuck & Co. built fortress-like complexes on the fringes of metropolitan Chicago. Jobs and residential development followed, fueling sprawl and congestion across the region.

Today, Sears Holdings Corp. and AT&T Inc. are looking to escape their compounds in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates. A shrunken Motorola has space to let in Schaumburg. Sara Lee Corp. eyes downtown office space after less than a decade in Downers Grove. Companies from Groupon Inc. to GE Capital hire thousands in Chicago while their suburban counterparts shed workers.

All reflect changes in the corporate mindset that spawned the campuses dotting outer suburbia. Empire-building CEOs from the 1970s through the 1990s craved not only cheap real estate but total control of their environments. They created self-contained corporate villages that cut off employees from outside influences.

As the 21st century enters its second decade, many companies are discovering the drawbacks of the isolation they sought. Hard-to-get-to headquarters limit the talent pool a company can draw on and feed a “not-invented-here” insularity that ignores major shifts in industries and markets.

This article suggests more corporations seek the opportunities that cities provide. Chicago certainly has opportunities – it was #6 in Foreign Policy’s 2010 global cities index. I wonder how much of this is driven by different factors:

1. Young people (college graduates, recent graduates) living in the city. We have some evidence that younger generations want denser environments and cultural opportunities. This would seem to go along with Richard Florida’s “creative class” idea that people and businesses move to exciting, innovative, culturally hip places.

1a. As a corollary, suburban places are no longer hip. These campuses are now decades old and involve stodgy suburbanites driving to stodgy workplaces. This is kind of interesting because the technology that would make instant connections possible may still not be enough to keep companies from relocating to the city.

2. Is there a particular business or city that has spurred this new thinking? If this has been shown to “work” elsewhere, it wouldn’t then be too surprising if other businesses followed suit.

3. Some have suggested that some businesses originally moved to the suburbs because their CEOs had already made the move and wanted their workplace to be closer to their homes. Could it be that CEOs and other important people in these corporations are now living in the city?

4. Tax breaks. This has been in the Chicago news recently with several companies, including Motorola and Sears, threatening to leave if they don’t get a better deal. Do these businesses get better incentives from the city of Chicago? Can increased tax breaks keep these campuses in the suburbs?

Sociologist finds many college students don’t learn critical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills

A new book (Academically Adrift) written by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska suggests that many college students don’t graduate with certain skills that colleges claim to be teaching. Here is a brief summary of the findings:

Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.

Arum, whose book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective.

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.

Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

The study also showed that students who studied alone made more significant gains in learning than those who studied in groups.

I wonder how colleges would respond to these findings. Within a 4 year institution (and across the spectrum of 4 year institutions), there are bound to be some students who do well and others who have more struggles. I wonder how much is in this data about the individual level characteristics of students and whether the authors suggest that spending more time doing school work would make a difference. Is it the college students who need to do more work, is it the professors who should be assigning more or asking for more, is it a campus culture that privileges other things over academic work (like extracurricular activities), or some combination of these three?

This suggests schools need to spend more time and effort on these particular skills and need to find ways to assess these (and the students’ progress or need for improvement) within their time at a 4 year institution.

The sociologists suggest there are some differences between disciplines:

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”

Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.

So actually doing more reading and writing makes a difference, no matter what the discipline. What does this mean for liberal arts colleges – is it really the place where students develop these particular skills?