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?

This fall, more than half of college students will be living at home

New figures suggest that more than half of American college students will be living at home during the fall 2012 semester:

For American students, heading off to college has traditionally also meant physically going away to college. But now, at a time when college costs are soaring, and when news of young people being saddled with burdensome student loan debt is unavoidable, today’s students are trying to trim college expenses in every way possible. More than half of students, in fact, will be living at home when the fall semester begins—up significantly from the 43% of students who commuted a couple of years ago…

The argument that a so-called “higher education bubble” really does exist—and may be in the process of popping—gets a boost especially because it looks like students in wealthier American families, who should be able to pay for pricey colleges, are choosing to stay home in increasingly higher numbers. As USA Today points out:

This year, 47% of students from high-income families, those making more than $100,000, are living at home, nearly double the 24% who did two years ago.

It would be interesting to see this broken down by type of institution. In other words, are students at pricier liberal arts and research schools living at home in greater numbers?

Are there studies that show the impact of living on campus versus commuting? Does it have any impact on learning? Does it have a demonstrable impact on social adjustment and well-being? I assume colleges and universities will have to do more to justify having students live on campus or having them pay so much…

h/t Instapundit

Difficulty in convincing students of racism and racial inequality

An article about whiteness studies hints at a bigger issue: the difficulty of convincing today’s college students that racism and racial inequality are still problems.

But that progress [end of slavery and Jim Crow plus the election of President Obama] has slanted the mainstream narrative too far into positive terrain, they argue, leaving many to think that racial equality has arrived. Even some young students of color are more skeptical than ever before…

“The typical college student will always say ‘What racial inequality? Look at the White House,’” says Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology department at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “I have to first convince them that inequality exists.”…

He says he starts the conversation by pointing to research such as a Pew Research Center report published last fall that showed the typical white family has roughly 20 times the wealth of the median black or Latino family. Thanks to the recession, the report said the gap is the largest it has been in a quarter century.

But some believe the idea of racism is shifting entirely. A 2008 poll by USA Today/Gallup and  showed that 40% of adults in America think racism against white people is widespread in the United States. A study published last year said that bias against whites is a bigger problem than bias against blacks.

While some indicators have improved (such as recent measures of residential segregation), there are still plenty of differences between different races. On the whole, life chances are still significantly determined by race. In Divided By Faith, two sociologists describe this as living in a “racialized” society where one’s race and ethnicity has a large impact on even micro-level decisions.

Part of this might simply be the process of continually teaching a new generation of college students. As their context and culture changes, college students arrive in the classroom with different concerns, knowledge, and passions. It would be interesting to track how incoming freshmen classes rate the importance of the issue of race, particularly compared to other concerns (like being able to find a job, terrorism, etc.). Perhaps this is cyclical, dependent on noteworthy events or political debates.

Of course, the world continues to change and academia will continue to shift toward studying newer trends. While the American case has historically been mostly about black-white relations, Latinos are now the largest minority group and how Latinos view themselves is something worth watching. Perhaps the trajectory of “whiteness studies” will change but the issue of race is still salient and is going to be studied for a long time.

College student survives 90 day “Amish Project” without technology

This is a news story that could only be written in our times: a University of Wisconsin-Madison student voluntarily unplugged from all media for 90 days and lived to tell about it. Here is a quick description of his “Amish Project”:

From October to December, he unplugged from social media, email, texts, and cell phones because he felt that we spend more quality time with gadgets and keyboards than we do with the people we really care about.

During his social experiment, he found that some people he counted among his close friends really weren’t that close after all. He also discovered that taking a break from his relationship with social media and really paying attention to the people around him can revive real-life romance.

And a few short thoughts from the student about his experiences:

[on getting started] I mean, I struggle with that because everyone wants to know about it, and wants to know how different it is. It’s hard, because I was just going to turn off my phone at first. That was the thing that bothered me most, but I realized that if I turned off the phone, people were just going to email me all the time or send me a million Facebook messages. It’s kind of a hard thing, because we’re getting to the point where if you’re not responding to people’s text messages within an hour of when they send them, or within a day for emails, it’s just socially unacceptable. It’s been hard for me since I’ve been back. I’ve been bad with my phone and people are, like, “What the hell? I text messaged you…” So I haven’t been up to social standards in terms of responding and people don’t really understand that, I guess…

[on finishing the project and returning to technology] It’s definitely different, but I catch myself doing exactly what I hated. Someone is talking to me and I’m half-listening and reading a text under the table. For me, it’s trying to be more aware of it. It kind of evolved from being about technology to more of just living in the moment. I think that’s what my biggest thing is: There’s not so much chasing for me now. I’m here now, and let’s just enjoy this. You can be comfortable with yourself and not have to go to the crutch of your phone. For me, that’s more what I will take away from this.

A few thoughts:

1. The author concludes that this means “texts and Facebook wall posts can serve as an attractive veneer making relationships seem more genuine than they really are.” I wonder how many people feel this way and if many do, do they simply keep going along out of habit or because of social pressure?

2. It seems like a lot of things that there possible for this student without technology might be much more difficult for the average adult. At college, it is much easier to find people, run into others, and pass notes, even on a big campus like UW-Madison. Could the average adult who lives alone and commutes to work make this work? Perhaps the key here is living near or very close to people one cares about.

3. What if it becomes “cool” to unplug from technology or turns into a status symbol rather than a reasoned choice about paying more attention to the people that mater?

4. I find the set-up to stories like these to be humorous: how in the world could people have survived without the technology we have today?!? Somehow they managed. The comparison here to the Amish is funny as well – there is a whole lifestyle associated with this that this college student isn’t truly considering.

5. This story presents a contrast between “authentic/real” relationships versus “superficial” relationships. Is it really that easy to categorize relationships? Research suggests most people use technology like Facebook to try to maintain a connection between people they already know – is that necessarily so bad? Perhaps it does detract from the present but it also makes us more aware of our broader social networks.

A quick overview of the liberal world of academia from a sociological study

As a writer looks at the political leanings of academia, much of the factual basis of the story is derived from a sociological study:

That faculties are liberal is beyond dispute. In a rigorous survey, University of British Columbia sociology Prof. Neil Gross concluded, “professors currently compose the most liberal major occupational group in American society.”

Gross got interested in this issue in 2005, when he was at Harvard, where president Lawrence Summers suggested that the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of math and science might be due to “different availability of aptitude at the high end.”…

So Gross and Solon Simmons of George Mason University surveyed more than 1,400 full-time professors at more than 900 American institutions. Only 19.7 percent of professors identified themselves as “any shade of conservative” (compared with 31.9 percent of the general population), while 62.2 percent identified themselves as some flavor of liberal (compared with 23.3 percent of Americans overall).

Gross found variation between disciplines. Social sciences and humanities contained the highest concentration of liberals. Conservatives were as numerous as liberals in business, health sciences, computer science and engineering.

I’ve noted before where sociological studies plus social psychologist Stephen Haidt, who is cited in this article, have discussed this topic. I still think it is a bit odd that Newt Gingrich has so much popularity with Republicans even though he is a former academic (see previous posts here and here).

Of course, the question regarding the politics of academia is “so what?” – how does it matter in the long run? The author of the piece cited above offers this conclusion:

Unfortunately, the estrangement will serve only to reinforce the lopsidedness of university politics, undermine the confidence of a large share of the public in expert opinion, and jeopardize the role of the university in public life whenever conservatives are in power.

These are not small matters, particularly as college costs continue to rise and students are told they must go to college in order to succeed in a changed world. In a world where we are told that everything is or could be considered political, this affects how researchers go about finding about and reporting on the truths they are discovering about the social and natural world. And this also must have an effect on how students view the learning process and the purposes of a college education. Does it simply reduce everything, from the perspective of all sides, to a naked struggle for power?

Why more Americans are living alone

A new book by sociologist Eric Klinenberg tries to explain why more American are living alone:

Despite these risks, more and more people all over the world have decided that living alone is their best option. In the United States, 31 million people—one in seven adults—live alone, accounting for a remarkable 28% of households. That’s up from just 9% in 1950. Americans may think of themselves as uniquely self-reliant, thanks perhaps to Emerson, but the trend is even more pronounced in other affluent countries…

Why are people making this choice? For the many women who outlive their husbands, healthy single older men are scarce. Young and old alike, meanwhile, recognize that family togetherness, when it is not wonderful, can be conflict-ridden and downright awful. Roommates, at any age, hold little appeal. Not least, people go solo because they can afford it. Living alone is a luxury good that, like the purchase of a car or the increased consumption of meat, flourishes in societies that have become affluent.

But people also seem motivated by a loss of faith in the very idea of family. Mr. Klinenberg quotes Joseph Schumpeter’s observation that, as soon as people stop taking traditional arrangements for granted, “they cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail.” Or as the sociologist Andrew Cherlin puts it, today “one’s primary obligation is to oneself rather than to one’s partner and children.”…

Most important, perhaps, is the increased value we place on autonomy. Since Dr. Spock, mothers and infants have departed from the age-old practice of sleeping together, and middle-class babies are now often placed in their own rooms. Swelling home sizes made this possible; from 1960 to 1980, the ratio of bedrooms to children in the average U.S. family rose to 1.1 from 0.7, so that nowadays parents and kids are rarely together in the same room—even for eating. Students increasingly expect a private room at college. Assuming that they do share quarters for a while after graduation, the move to an apartment of one’s own is now, writes Mr. Klinenberg, “the crucial turning point between second adolescence and becoming an adult.”

The review suggests Klinenberg thinks is a lasting trend but we’ll have to wait and see. What would it take for people to reverse the trend and have more people living in households or to want to take on the responsibility of having a family?

Perhaps Klinenberg doesn’t have the data to address this but I wonder how much people living alone interact with others – are they more involved in organizations, have higher levels of civic engagement, are more involved with others online, etc.?

It is interesting to think about this on college campuses – does anyone have numbers about how many college students do live in single rooms or how many would like to? Of course, few college students have ever lived with others in the same room when they arrive on campus so outside of marriage, this may be the only “normal” time for this to happen. If living in single rooms becomes a norm on campus, does this significantly alter the college experience?

Study: people tend to make friends on Facebook with people of similar tastes

A recently published study of college students argues that people become Facebook friends with people of similar tastes:

“The more tastes that you and I share in common, the more likely we are to become friends,” said study author Kevin Lewis, a graduate student in sociology at Harvard University.

The findings seem to contradict the conventional wisdom that people are easily influenced by those around them. Instead, “we’re seeking out people we already resemble rather than learning new perspectives and liking new things,” Lewis said…

The goal of the study was to understand how people choose friendships, Lewis said. The researchers started with 1,640 students at an unnamed U.S. college in 2006 and tracked their Facebook friendships and tastes — in popular music, movies and books — until they were seniors in 2009…

The study found that “students who share some tastes in movies and music are more likely to become friends,” Lewis said. Shared tastes in books were less influential.

Sounds like an interesting study. I haven’t read the full study but there are two other things I would want to know:

1. The study is restricted to college students. Might this influence the results? Of course, these college students will become the adults of the next few decades.

2. How does this fit with existing research that shows that people tend to be Facebook friends with people they already know? Things are a little different in college where students are more willing to friend people in these classes (actual academic courses and year in school). But, most Facebook users are not going online to find new friends with whom they don’t previously have a connection.

3. The last paragraph I cited above makes me think of branding. Younger people in particular define themselves by some of their tastes and it doesn’t shock me that this is done more through music and movies than books. So are books more private tastes or are very few people in college reading?