Place Matters

I went to a very good public school in an upper-middle class neighborhood in Silicon Valley, and ran with a very intelligent and high-achieving crowd.  (Not that we didn't do our share of stupid stuff, but thank God YouTube didn't exist back then or we'd all be unemployed now.)  So when it came to college, my friends and I set our sights high.  We wanted to get into the very best schools, and did everything we could to get into them.

"Best" is of course a subjective thing, highly dependent on what each of us was looking for in a school.  But, by and large, my friends and I took our cues about "best" from national rankings such as the main one at the time from US News & World Report.  I was into business, and Wharton's undergraduate program was #1 so that was what I was gunning for.  (I also looked at Berkeley, Michigan, and MIT for the same reasons.)  My engineering friends had their sights set on Berkeley, CalTech, and Rice.  And so on and so forth.  Accordingly, we digested every piece of information possible about these institutions and worked every angle to position ourselves to get accepted.

You know what didn't do?  We didn't think too much about where these schools were actually located.  Obviously, there's a big difference for a suburban California kid to stay local versus fly out to Philly or Boston or Houston for school, so we thought about to what extent we wanted to be close to home or go far.  But we didn't think about Philly or Boston or Houston as cities we would be spending formative years in, let alone the specific neighborhoods that these universities were located in.  In other words, for us the physical setting of the school wasn't a factor in determining where we wanted to go.

I don't think anyone thinks like this anymore.  Today's aspiring college kids (at least the ones who have choices) think long and hard about the community context of the campus they will be spending several years of their lives.  This importance of place can come from one or more of the following (somewhat overlapping) factors:

1. Part of my college experience and my growing up is about connecting with a real place with real people, so I want to get to know and interact with the immediate neighborhood around my campus and with the city and region as a whole.

2. I want my first experience living on my own to get me out of my childhood bubble and into a place where I can get involved in matters of civic engagement, social justice, and community building.

3. Every neighborhood and city has a distinct character, and part of my thinking about where I want to go to school is which place resonates with my values and interests.

4. There is a specific amenity package that I need from a quality of life standpoint (e.g. retail, outdoor recreation, built form, transportation options), so I want to choose a location that will satisfy those needs.

This shift in how universities are selected and then how the university experience is consumed has a number of implications for universities.  For one, there is the need to invest in resources and marketing to scratch these itches, so that prospective students know they will get the amenities, access, and support they are seeking in a location.  It also shapes universities' relationships with their host communities and municipalities, as there is a shared sense that part of what the university is promoting to prospective students is the place in which it is located (with all of the attendant resources and services).  Philosophically, universities are shifting dramatically from ivory towers to engaged campuses, with implications for everything from curriculum and student life to real estate investment and facilities management.

Looking back on the 26+ years since I first left for college, I am struck by how much of my college experience (and, because I stayed in the neighborhood adjacent to Penn, how much of my post-college life) was shaped and continues to be shaped by the physical setting of my university.  Place matters, and I'm glad that today's aspiring college kids understand this far better than my friends and I did way back when.

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