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TLP: Redefining College Towns for the 21st Century

Online education’s impact and how college towns can reinvent themselves
University Business, Nov 2011

Growing numbers of students came to campus this fall, as they have for over half a century. The beginning of school year ritual seems to go on forever, but for the first time, there are signs that, in its present form, it won’t. And it is the oft-ignored college town outside the campus that will be most affected.

Colleges are already changing and will evolve even more in response to an altered higher ed marketplace. These changes are likely to hurt college town economies. State governments have cut funding support, and the recession and diminished home values are making high college costs­­—which have taken a pounding in the media—less manageable. The ‘is-it-worth-it?’ question is everywhere. Experts say college graduates are likely to continue to have difficulty finding suitable work due to leaner corporate operations, competition from lower-wage graduates overseas, and technology. The most potent source of change will be distance learning. Its lower cost and flexibility challenge the tradition that students have to spend years living in a college town to get a degree.

To become places to visit or to live, college towns will have to market themselves.

A July/August Harvard Business Review analysis said higher ed is “about to be slammed by a huge wave of change.” An October 3 New York Times piece described an online university envisioned by a Stanford professor as “an earthquake for the majority of colleges.” Schools are investing in online education. With accelerated on-campus degree programs, students are spending fewer years in the college town. Colleges may do well as cost-conscious students choose these options, but the economy of the rest of the college town will be affected. Professors can send services electronically to customers who never set foot in town. College town barbers and pizza places cannot. But by reinventing and remarketing themselves, college towns can do better than ever.

Marketing Assets

Even smaller college towns have advantages that comparably-sized places would kill for. Chief among them is an invaluable marketing asset: college towns’ emotional equity as a Third Lifetime Place (TLP) in thousands of alumni lives. Ranking with the childhood home and current place of residence, the college town will forever be fondly remembered. Some college towns are making themselves places to live and visit, not just learn or do research. The best-developed expression of the place to live has been college-related retirement communities. That is also a huge market with baby boomers now retiring.

College towns also offer advantages to visitors for sports and entertainment, meetings, medical tourism, or vacations that can contribute to their becoming a favored place to live. To become places to visit or live, college towns will have to market themselves, though. That’s something they’ve seldom had to do.

The poster child for TLP marketing is Florida. The state has gone from familiar annual winter vacation spot to “second home,” retirement hub, or place to live during working years. The college town may now eclipse vacationland as the TLP in their lives for baby boomers and later generations that so embraced higher ed.

For campus leaders, the most important contribution to college town reinvention and marketing can be applying the best knowledge and thought to local efforts, asking questions and floating imaginative ideas unlikely to originate elsewhere in town. Such new thinking is called for with conventional job-and-tax-base-seeking programs tending to focus on financial giveaways to corporations than on developing and selling local competitive advantage. College towns may have the best chance to break away from this costly, much criticized approach.

Company towns have always been vulnerable to economic change. The disruptions that unsettled U.S. manufacturing are spreading to the service economy and knowledge workers. But entrepreneurial college towns can become demographically and economically diversified univer-cities and even bigger successes in the 21st century than they were in the 20th.

John L. Gann, Jr. ( consults and trains in economic development marketing as president of Chicago area-based Gann Associates. He formerly had an Extension appointment at Cornell University. His latest book is The Third Lifetime Place: A New Economic Opportunity for College Towns (CarpeHoram, 2011, 800-61-HORAM).).