Bucolic College Towns in the era of COVID-19

by Grant Calder

Since the beginning of the 21st century, college-bound high schoolers have increasingly favored larger urban universities and big flagship state universities. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic will moderate that trend.

In the 19th century, hundreds of smaller, so-called liberal arts colleges were established across the United States. The vast majority of them were not in urban settings. Partly this was a practical consideration. The colleges were residential. Land was generally less expensive in rural areas and outside of town and city centers. And students could travel to them. But the choice was also intentional. Industrialization brought many benefits, but it also meant that the cities became dirtier, noisier, and centers of violence, crime, and outbreaks of disease. And it meant that, by the early 20th century, many of the middle and upper class families, who could afford it and sent their children (by the 1920s over 40% were women) to college, were living in one of those cities or near factories and mills in industrial towns and were seeking a different kind of college environment for their offspring. 

Undergraduate institutions had much of the same social and educational appeal that they do today. But the fact that students attending the small town ones could also breathe clean air, hear the birds singing outside their dormitory windows, not worry about locking their rooms, and be (relatively) removed from morally corrupting influences and insulated from outbreaks of various diseases was a big part of the draw.

The number of residents in many of the northern and eastern cities peaked in the 1940s as workers were drawn to the war industries, but the next few decades brought depopulation and deindustrialization that persisted, more or less uninterrupted, until the 1980s. During that period, students, many of them raised in the suburbs, happily headed to small college towns. The Rust Belt cities struggled. It’s easy to forget that New York City came very close to declaring bankruptcy in 1975. 

But the balance tipped again, and at the end of the century, the major urban centers began to recover from their post-war declines. Their universities, often the largest remaining private employers, supported, and benefited from, the returning tide of workers and professionals seeking jobs and a culturally richer and more diverse urban lifestyle. And with them came students. At the most competitive of those institutions, the numbers of applicants have quadrupled or quintupled, since the mid-1970s.

What will students do now? They face an uncertain future. They are aware that the COVID-19 virus may well not be the last of its type. They live in a suddenly reshaped society in which various forms of social distancing may remain the norm for some time.

But what will students do now? They face an uncertain future. They are aware that the COVID-19 virus may well not be the last of its type. They live in a suddenly reshaped society in which various forms of social distancing may remain the norm for some time. They understand that the museums, concert venues, stadiums, and cafe culture that draw people to the cities and to urban campuses also make them ideal environments for the spread of pathogens. And they have been recently reminded that the cities can also be focal points of social unrest.

Perhaps more soon-to-be high school graduates will shift their attention back to the smaller towns and to the hundreds of colleges in them. In many ways, these institutions continue to offer the same havens as they did a century and more ago. The wide open spaces that had become less appealing to 21st century students now beckon as perfect spots for outdoor classes under temporary pavilions and for socially distanced activities of all sorts. Coronavirus testing and screening for all students, faculty, and staff will be easier to manage in smaller, physically isolated college communities. The smaller classes and smaller scale that have always been signature characteristics and a big part of the appeal of these primarily undergraduate institutions may make them even more attractive options in this new era. 

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