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Place Still a Priority in the Digital Era

The EvoLLLution | Place Still a Priority in the Digital Era
Capitalizing on relationships with local businesses and governments can help institutions truly dominate their local markets, providing a more promising avenue to long-term sustainability than trying to achieve nationwide reach.

Many people think that the continual improvement in digital communication means that geography matters less in the 21st century. That perspective couldn’t be more wrong. The vast majority of colleges and universities are place-based institutions whose futures are inextricably intertwined with that of the metro regions in which they are located. Higher education leaders must understand this relationship if they want to increase student success and financial sustainability.

I first stumbled onto the importance of place in higher education about ten years ago while working with new mapping software in a public policy organization. We mapped a wide variety of data sets to experiment with this new visual tool. One of the more dramatic results was the tight connection between the location of a college and where its students came from. While serving on the board of a community college foundation, I often heard college leaders brag about the large number of towns across the state represented in our student body. The maps showed that while that distribution was true, it was also thin—the overwhelming majority came from a handful of nearby towns.

The median distance from home for undergraduates is 19 miles according to the most recent US Department of Education report. While there is variation across type of institution, the difference between the shortest (12 miles for community colleges) and the longest distance (58 miles for private universities) isn’t very dramatic. You don’t need to spend too much time reacting to these national numbers; every institution can crunch its own numbers. I’m confident that most institutions will find that their home metro region is what really matters to them.

The disconnect in the public image of “going away to college” and how far students actually travel can distract institutional leaders. More untapped opportunity for growth exists within the metro region you serve—and where you have competitive advantages—than in chasing prospective students from around the country or even the world. No single approach fits all institutions, but every tuition-dependent college and university can take a cold, hard look at its numbers and reflect on the experience of peer institutions to see how likely it will be able to balance future budgets with tuition derived hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Your backyard contains many opportunities. If the demographic trend in recent high school graduates is running against you, a broader look at the market for adult learners (both returning non-completers and graduate students) will certainly reveal a stronger market. No one should be better positioned than the well-known local institution to build strong partnerships with employers across business, non-profit and government sectors to offer both credit and non-credit programs that genuinely meet local needs.

The key to making the most out of your geographic strengths lies in relationships. Building better relationships with formal entities, such as employers and government leaders, may seem obvious. Far less understood is the importance of building stronger student relationships. My strong bet is that the majority of graduates of most higher education institutions stay nearby to live and work. If they leave your campus with a sense of attachment to a school that understood how to help them succeed, then you are growing a ready market for returning students. However, if they leave thinking they survived a “sink or swim” or indifferent environment, I’m not sure how many will think of your institution first when it’s time to continue their education.

Some changes in elite higher education institutions over the past 60 years have set unwise goals for those who would seek to emulate those trends. Most elite universities did nationalize or globalize their undergraduate student population over many decades. Why should that be a goal for all institutions? It should be a matter of pride—and civic obligation—to serve the people of your region. And it increasingly appears that doubling down on the mission of a place-based campus and understanding the opportunities that provides may offer more hope for success in an increasingly challenging marketplace.

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