The Death of the Local College

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  1. Avatar dhex says:

    “Why do you think it is so hard for schools to remain dedicated to being local or commuter institutions? Is this a side effect of globalization?”


    there are limited tools that act as a proxy for quality. hence why things like “fit” and answers like “i came to campus and it just felt right” are so common.

    we know that at the beginning of the college search process there’s a reliance on gatekeepers – namely parents (also relatives, neighbors, and teachers to a lesser degree) and high school guidance counselors* – to act as filters for which schools will be considered by students. that changes as they progress through their college decision, but that initial grouping generally sets the tone. and varies as backgrounds and education/hhi levels vary.

    local colleges aren’t simply melting away (community colleges, for example, fit this role) but depending on the region of the country they’re located in, demographics are shifting away from them. the game is changing significantly due to regional demographic pressures and increased recruiting – especially in the northeast.

    * the evolution of guidance counselors from the basketball coach with too many dwi convictions to professionals wooed by admissions officers over the last 20-ish years still strikes me as difficult to believe.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to dhex says:


      “there are limited tools that act as a proxy for quality. hence why things like “fit” and answers like “i came to campus and it just felt right” are so common.”

      I will admit that I did this. I knew I wanted a school with a good theatre department that was not a conservatory program (B.A. over B.F.A.) but I also had the I want to go here feeling as soon as I drove through the main gates of Vassar College with my parents. It probably helped that it was a impossible perfect fall day (in my memory) and looked like the Platonic Ideal of a College guidebook.


      My law school was founded before WWI. For decades it had a reputation for providing the bar and bench of the Bay Area and many of the students were Bay Area locals. Everyone respected it as a good and local workaday school. Some people went to do big firm work but many went to small and medium sized firms, government law work, and eventually positions on Superior Courts around the Bay Area. Sometime during the first tech boom, the Bay Area became more desirable as a place to live and my alma mater stopped being a local law school for people who grew up in the Bay Area and tried to raise their national profile and this caused them to suffer. They were simply not able to compete with the already powerhouses of Cal and Stanford plus the Harvard-Yale students who decide they want to live in the Bay Area.

      The law school is attached to an undergrad which was founded in the 1850s and spent most of her life just being a local school that educated first generation college students. The students were usually of Italian and Irish working-class backgrounds (the school is Jesuit). However, the undergrad wing has stopped being a local/commuter school and has decided to go after students from Asia especially the newly-rich Asia where a degree from any American university could be a nice cache.

      “* the evolution of guidance counselors from the basketball coach with too many dwi convictions to professionals wooed by admissions officers over the last 20-ish years still strikes me as difficult to believe.”

      The guidance counselors at my upper-middle class suburban high school in 1994-1998 were very professional. Certainly not the basketball coach with too many dwi convictions.Report

      • I went to a school derided by locals as a “commuter college.” I wasn’t really sold on the place until I visited the campus, which it turned out is reasonably traditional and quite awesome. Since then, the school is bending over backwards to not be the school it has a reputation for being. Moving away from vocational, focusing STEM on pursuits where there are research grants at play, and getting people to live on campus. There’s also been a massive remodeling to get people to stick around on weekends.

        A part of me gringes at the movement away from the school’s history. But I think there is a degree of sink-or-swim “Average is Over” in the water.

        Anyway, the budget was about 1bn per year ten years ago. Now it’s 1.5bn. It’s also become the most expensive public school in the state (despite not being the best ranked). Also makes me cringe… but sink or swim, right?Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Texas State may be the best example of what’s going on with regional schools that I can think of. It changed its name (from Southwest Texas State), it started recruiting both students and faculty more heavily, it expanded, and it started to get an influx of students who would have been at UT-Austin or A&M 10 years ago. Meanwhile, because of tuition hikes, it lost a lot of students who would have been freshmen or sophomores there 10 years ago to community colleges (the truly local schools). So as the quality of the students went up, they got better faculty, better grad programs, more grad students, therefore more grant money.Report

      • I actually posted on Hit Coffee today about directional schools and name changes and the like. Been going back and forth on whether or not to cross-post here.Report

      • Anyway, a lot of schools in SWT’s place have become franchise schools for the flagship.

        UMKC always was, though, it looks like.Report

      • Scratch that. Used to be UKC and something else before 1963.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I remember when Memphis State changed its name to just the University of Memphis, the perception of it as a commuter school didn’t really change at all. The people from my hometown still go to MTSU over Memphis because Memphis is over there. If they can, they go to UT’s flagship campus in Knoxville, and the MTSU set might be inclined to go to UT-Martin before Memphis. Hell, they might be more likely to go to Western Kentucky, because it’s closer to “here” than Memphis is.

        It probably doesn’t help that Memphis is Memphis, a town with a reputation for poverty and crime, and not for education, but it’s still clear that in in the 20+ years since it changed its name, its reputation hasn’t changed much.

        By the way, a record of Memphis’ names and the year:

        West Tennessee State Normal School (1912)
        West Tennessee State Teachers College (1931)
        Memphis State College (1941)
        Memphis State University (1957)
        University of Memphis (1994)

        I suspect the biggest changes for the school were the transition from a teacher’s college to a liberal arts school, and the transition from a college to a university.

        Texas State, on the other hand, got rid of their direction and became a good regional school with some programs that it hopes will be top in the state (criminal justice, e.g.) and therefore let it poach even more of the flagships’ students. Based on an n of 2, then, I conclude that losing a direction can result in a much bigger jump than losing “State.”Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I also wonder how much of the name changes and the gaming the rankings is to attract foreign students. I mean, few if any American students are going to be fooled by UMKC’s ranking in one area of one school, even if that’s what they want to study, and even if they want to study it in the midwest. The folks who would go to the #1 school or even a top 20 school are, if they’re from around here, aware of where they should go. In today’s college market, however, foreign students are really important, and the rankings might convince some who can’t get into Harvard or MIT or Stanford that UMKC is a better choice than, say, UM-Columbia or SLU or wherever.Report

      • Texas State is something of a special case because it’s a great name that wasn’t taken. And before that it was bidirectional (I don’t think the North of North Texas hurts it as much as it would of it were Northeast Texas, and I think getting the “State” removed probably helped a bit (just as I think MTSU would benefit from being UMT by a little).Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        fun trivia: nyu was once a commuter school that almost went out of business in the mid-70s.

        “The guidance counselors at my upper-middle class suburban high school in 1994-1998 were very professional.”

        of course they were. you grew up in one of the richest sections of the planet. it was less so elsewhere. but now, even counselors for poor county schools wear pants and very rarely give students wine coolers and attempt to snuggle them. it’s a madhouse.


        “I also wonder how much of the name changes and the gaming the rankings is to attract foreign students.”

        almost no effect that i can think of. most of the foreign recruitment done by non-name-brand schools (meaning schools with worldwide recognition) is generally done via recruitment agencies who get a per-student fee.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to dhex says:

      In almost every place in the country, such schools were never local, they were regional, and they aren’t dying at all. They’re thriving, in fact, because of changes to the college market (higher tuition overall, stricter admission requirements at many flagship institutions, etc.).Report

    • Avatar A Compromised Immune System in reply to dhex says:

      @will-truman my alma mater is doing similar things because they are at risk of having their funding cut by the legislature if they don’t prove “worth” on a very small set of metrics that are all related to certain business and STEM graduate number goals. Several local politicians have announced desires to destroy non-STEM degree programs as being supposedly unnecessary for society and any school that isn’t considered either a flagship or trade school is a target for budget cuts.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to dhex says:


      NYU nearly going bankrupt is a bit of an over simplification. NYU had a Bronx campus which was causing a serious drain on University finances as the Bronx underwent urban decay in the 1960s and 70s. The Bronx campus was considered better academically than the Village campus until this time.
      But I don’t think the Washington Square campus was in danger of going under as well.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        It was in serious trouble in the early 70s, actually. nyu was saved by a donation from a benefactor that they split with the law school (which was supporting the entire operation for a spell), iirc it was a macaroni factory. they used the proceeds to beef up their philosophy department and other soft spots – as well as solid development leadership – by recruiting hard among leading lights, which lifted their reputation dramatically and help shape them into the successful real estate holding operation they run today.

        the story is detailed in chapter 4 of “shakespeare, einstein and the bottom line” according to my kindle copy.

        the bronx campus was sold in the early 70s to cuny.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        that book is very much worth reading, despite it’s central thesis that people like me are satan.Report

  2. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    This should not be OTC.Report

  3. Avatar j r says:

    I cannot answer your question. I can, though, point you in the direction of Tyler Cowen ( who has a pretty good understanding of the factors at play here.Report

  4. I’m not at all sure that this is a new phenomenon. To the extent it is, though, I can think of a number of explanations:

    1. Large numbers of “local” schools themselves are a relatively recent phenomena. CUNY is probably one of the oldest such schools in existence, if not the oldest, yet it was founded only in 1847. Until probably the 1950s, except in the biggest urban centers, I doubt that there would have been enough of a population with an interest in obtaining a college degree to support “local” colleges of any significance. As such, the desire for a national profile may just be a natural part of the evolution of any “local” college. Indeed, it’s worth mentioning that all or almost all of the colleges we think of as being “national” or “regional” probably started out as seemingly “local” institutions before growing, though for population density reasons they may never have truly been commuting schools. If anything, rankings do no more than provide an easy and obvious means for colleges to grow their profile.

    2. The explosion of colleges in general. There are 50% more 4 year colleges today than there were 30 years ago, but only about 20 % more high schools. Enrollment has increased by more than that, but the point is that schools can’t get by on being the only, or one of the only, “local” schools in a given area, and thus have to be able to provide reasons for students to choose them over one of the other local schools.

    3. Online colleges. The main reason to go to a “local” commuter school, other than reputation, is convenience and cost. Online colleges will usually beat a “local” commuter school on both of these fronts. So it becomes doubly important for “local” schools to raise their profile and reputation. What’s more, residence schools have an additional advantage over online colleges: the chance to live away from mom and dad. If a school can make the transition to a residence-based school, then, it has another advantage over online colleges. And if you’re going to be have a significant residency component, then you may as well try to increase your pool of potential applicants. On the other hand, you could remain a commuter school but add a significant online component, at which point you may as well start trying to take some of the online education pie, too.

    4. Getting away from mom and dad is becoming an increasingly important part of college for students, not just in terms of being able to live on-campus, but also in terms of putting some physical space between the students and their parents. I have no data for this, just speculation.Report

    • Also, what @chris said in his 2:36 comment.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      1847 is rather old by American standards!

      I am not sure I fully agree on Harvard being a local school. If you look at the bios of early founders, a lot of them did travel fairly far to go to university (if they went). Madison is from Virginia but went to Princeton instead of William and Mary like Jefferson. Though it would be interesting to look at school like Cornell or Oberlin to see when people began traveling farther to attend those institutions.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Compare to 1787, which was when Pitt was founded. Pittsburgh’s educational institutions have pretty much stayed regional. (It helps that Pitt has a lot of commuters). I mean, Carnegie Tech was pretty much “make workers for Carnegie to employ as engineers”.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I dunno. CMU is relatively well-respected even out here, although it’s sort of unusual to see a CMU grad. Pitt enjoys at least an average reputation, if not better.Report

  5. Avatar A Compromised Immune System says:

    It’s all about the money. A commuter school or community college can count on generally being underfunded, getting a reputation for being underfunded, and then be treated as if it deserves to be underfunded even as the hard working faculty and staff there do their best to serve an often already underserved population of students. At the same time they’re also trying to keep their enrollment at points where the legislature won’t further de-fund them while not having anything remotely like the ad budget of scam diploma mills like U of Phoenix.Report

  6. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    My guess is that globalization is the biggest factor in contributing to the design of the local school. Local higher education is based on the idea of a relatively closed and complete in itself social and economic system. Sure, there was always businessmen and professionals that operated on a national or international level but until relatively recently each major city anchored its own regional socio-economic system. There were brands, products, companies, and more that were well known within a given area but unknown of it. You could do very well without having to rise to national or international prominence. The local colleges and professional schools existed to supply the professionals needed to run these regional systems. Once the regional socio-economic systems either collapsed or became irrelevant than the local schools started to compete with the national or international schools to remain relevant.Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Other than the top 1% of schools, how much impact is there on the whole “which school did you go to?” thing when it comes to getting a job?

    I went to a little commuter college and now, as a grown up, I check the Colorado Median Income and I’m on the right side of it.

    Is this one of those things where I may be doing better than the median, sure, but if I had graduated from CSU, I’d be doing even better, CU Boulder, better yet, and Colorado College, even better than that?Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

      @jaybird You might be a special case. I might also be a special case. My law school was once a very well-respected regional law school in NYC that is now the but of a lot of criticism about modern law schools. Statistically speaking, I shouldn’t be working as a lawyer or making as much as I do in salary based on where I went. Yet, I’m doing much better than I should statistically.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird says:

      Your choice of profession, and the vagaries of the job market creating relative labor shortages (or surpluses) compared to demand, are going to be the primary driver here. In most professions, beyond a certain point, your alma mater does not make a big difference in income.

      What’s interesting, though, is that in many professions, the prestige of your school is a significant factor in your early career arc, and those earnings have feedback earnings you realize later in life.

      But ultimately, how much demand there is for your skill set is what drives the compensation you can command.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Burt Likko says:

        If you get your law degree from some place like SMU, you’re never going to make it onto to the Supreme Court.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

        But that doesn’t mean the SMU grad is doomed to a career of mediocrity, either.Report

      • Avatar Lyle in reply to Burt Likko says:

        But Mike Schillings comment exposes a point in a situation where post BA/BS education is needed it is the school where the final degree is obtained that matters not the undergraduate institution. The undergraduate school matters only in terms of is it good enough to get you in the right post BA/BS institution.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


        Indeed. One of the interesting things is how it plays out in law usually. There are a lot of rich lawyers who did not go to great schools and did not necessarily have the best grades. Hence the old joke about “A students become professors. B students become judges. C students become really rich lawyers.”

        Though I’ve noticed that the C students become really rich lawyers by going into the fields of law that are usually considered not-white shoe and semi-disrespectable like Personal Injury and Criminal Defense. Now I think people doing this stuff are doing great work because I am one of them but there were people in law school who thought I was worthy of contempt for wanting to be a plaintiff’s lawyer and I’ve gotten the “Ambulance chaser” bit.

        Though it is also fairly common for people to go from Defense to Plaintiff’s work because they realize how lucrative a contingency fee can be.


        I think that is true but potentially still overstating the case because most people still do not attend graduate school. That being said there was a great anecdotal story along those lines in Paying for the Party: How College Promotes Inequality. One young working class women had a strong aptitude for the Classics and her professors encouraged her to go to grad school. The problem was that she went to Indiana University which is a decent but not great Public University. She could not compete against students who went to the Ivies, the Ivy equivalents, etc. She did get into a program but it was not a top-rated grad program and came with little financial aid.

        She decided to go to law school after waiting tables for a year or something like that.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Burt Likko says:

        i hope there’s a coda in the book where she beats the professors with a tire iron. that is some class a bad advice from people who should have known better and given far better guidance.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Burt Likko says:

        @dhex her professors didn’t necessarily give her bad advise. My university history department operated on the thesis that everybody seeking a B.A. in history was going to go on to a PhD. The entire history program was designed to encourage this. A similar thing could have occurred at the Classics department in Indiana University. The assumption might have been that anybody majoring in such an academic field as classics would pursue it for a living.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


        I think @dhex is on to something unfortunately. I don’t think a lot of tenured professors realize how bad things are out there in terms of the lack of tenure positions and the permanence of adjuncting and the academy does need to exist for something other than having a pipeline of undergrads-grads-professors.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I’m sure that after you finally get tenure, you think “My hard work *FINALLY* paid off! Just like my professors told me it would happen!”

        And you can ignore the pile of bodies by the front door.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Burt Likko says:

        @saul-degraw point. Most of the professors at American’s history department were tenured. Its probably the same form of denial that many law school faculties are experiencing.Report

      • Avatar Lyle in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Interestingly the folks from the top schools are more likley to go to get advanced degrees, because to put it bluntly they get how college works and like the lifestyle. Of course a number of career choice demand post graduate study, including more and more the allied fields of medicine where for example the Doctor of Nursing is becoming more common. Or in business the top folks who get their MBA’s. I just checked and about 27% of Bachelors grads get masters or higher today. So the issue depends very much on ones career choice in many the grad school is the important one.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


        By life style do you mean the college lifestyle or the upper-middle class lifestyle?

        I suppose the answer is yes.

        I went to my Masters program because I was told I needed to get an MFA to direct theatre professionally. I went to law school because I figured out I did not like the hand in mouth existence of theatre and luckily I really like being a lawyer.

        Though I was considering getting a PhD because I do really like school/academia but I realized my chances of a tenure track position was slim. Though there is a part of me that would use a genie wish for a tenure position at a college in a charming town/city. There is a part of me that can see being a permanent grad student too.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Burt Likko says:


        “her professors didn’t necessarily give her bad advise. My university history department operated on the thesis that everybody seeking a B.A. in history was going to go on to a PhD. The entire history program was designed to encourage this. ”

        1) it is bad advice. there is no way anyone in higher ed isn’t aware of the gap between the phd pipeline in any field – but particularly the classics – and tt positions. it’s simply not possible barring coma or death.

        2) that department sounds more like a factory of jenny mccarthy style bad counsel than a “i have no idea what’s going on but this sounds good because it worked for me” situation. malignant, willful ignorance. it doesn’t even sound real.Report

      • Avatar Lyle in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Re Saul Degraw: I meant mostly the college life style. Although grad school can be far more intense than undergraduate school. But its being in a group all of whom are about the same economic status for example. The experience depends partly on the grad school. It appears that and MBA program and Law school can be intense, and that Med School ranges close to abuse in terms of hours worked. (As indeed does later medical education such as residencies). Of course being a low level investment banker is also an intense job.
        However when I went to work in an Oil research job in Houston it was far less intense than grad school. In 1976 quitting time was 4:30 for example and everyone was gone in 1 min.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


        Got it. I think professional school is a bit different because it is about training you to be a professional. I did like my grad school life-style a lot though. Classes, rehearsals, random weekday afternoons free or in the library stacks or reading plays.

        Good times. Good times.Report

  8. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Now being a green campus is admirable but I was trying to think of why that should influence a students decision to attend a school over tuition, location, financial aid offerings, the strength of various academic departments, etc.

    In a word you are very comfortable with: Prestige.Report