Thursday, August 30, 2012

The rise of the urban university

By Christa Tinsley Spaht, Project Manager.

Most colleges are back in session for the fall semester (if that’s what you call 81°F and 71% humidity), this weekend thousands of SEC and ACC football fans will descend on Atlanta for the Chik-fil-A Kickoff Game. As an undergraduate at University of Georgia, I have witnessed the all-consuming power of SEC football and how it can grip a town for days on end. Still, the Kickoff Game’s impact on Atlanta is a far cry from what Athens, Georgia experienced when hosting Auburn fans.

This is why, frankly, I was thrilled to attend graduate school at an urban university, at Georgia State University. I needed a setting where I could balance school work and a professional job without the distractions of strange fraternity traditions stopping traffic or having to wade across a quad littered with empty SoCo bottles for a Saturday session at the library. What was once sort of charming and part of the college experience when I was 20, I no longer had patience for.

In just about every community we work in, I hear something to the extent of, “That used to be thought of more as a ‘commuter school,’” about its local four-year public college or university. But now this campus—a branch of a major campus, or a standalone institution—is growing rapidly in programs, enrollment, and physical plant.

As populations are shifting more and more to metro areas and as the model of higher education changes, schools that were once “commuter schools” with a few majors play an increasingly vital role in the human capital potential of cities and regions. Unlike the secluded land grant or flagship institution out in a rural or college town setting, the urban university is pushed up against the very businesses and organizations that will employ its students. These schools have to respond to a more diverse student population and a business community that needs educated employees and needs them now. Many are busting at the seams in mid- to high-density areas, eating up real estate as quickly as they can for classroom space, faculty offices, student learning and social centers, and housing.

While they may not have two hundred years of loyal, dedicated alumni (among those, state legislators and decision makers), massive endowments, and the powerful athletics programs (and the crazed fans and automatic media exposure that accompany football and basketball) that the more established universities have, urban universities (whether research-focused or not) have an incredible opportunity to partner in meaningful ways with the people who will be hiring and promoting their graduates. The bureaucracies of a major institution governed by a state body are still there, to be sure, but the need to adapt to the changing worlds of education, global talent demands, and cities with fewer resources put these metro institutions in a position to be higher education pioneers and forge new partnerships that flagship universities may not have the flexibility or the desire to facilitate.

Some of the recent success stories I’ve seen in communities we’ve worked in over the past couple of years include Peter Kiewit Institute at University of Nebraska–Omaha, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and Auburn University–Montgomery. I’m looking forward to watching what the future holds for these institutions, and—more importantly—the impact their graduates will have on the vibrancy and growth of their cities.