Friday, February 5, 2016

Upscaling the American College Community

Last year, on the corner of the busiest intersection in College Park, Maryland—home of the University of Maryland’s flagship campus—a small but significant change took place. After 30 years of business, a derelict pizza shop closed its doors and, in its place, a popular chain of Portuguese chicken restaurants opened. This seemingly innocuous change is significant, not because of the reduction of pizza slices per capita (there are some 13 pizza joints near the campus) or the loss of a neighborhood institution. It is significant because it represents a microcosm of shifts taking place in College Park and many other college communities: upscaling.

There was a time when college communities were known, among other things, for cheapness. Cheap pitchers of beer at grimy bars. Cheap apartments and houses for rent. And, yes, even cheap slices of pizza. Goods and services were cheap in response to the well-worn mantra of the broke college student. If you wanted to attract college students, you competed on price more than quality. To be sure, there are still vestiges within every college community of businesses seeking to attract poor college students with basement prices. However, in many college communities there is a perceptible movement away from cheapness as a guiding business strategy. Instead, entrepreneurs are actively pursuing a more affluent segment of the consumer market.

As a professor of higher education, I have had the privilege of visiting many college communities, and in almost every case, the trend of upscaling is evident. By now, we’ve repeatedly heard and/or read about manifestations of this trend, particularly related to student housing. College communities have witnessed the construction of luxury apartment buildings, many of which are mixed-use developments, combining residential and commercial spaces. What this means in the context of college communities is that restaurants and convenience stores line the first floor of large apartment buildings. Students only need to walk down the hall and take an elevator to buy a burrito.

There are signs of upscaling beyond food and housing. Coffee shops feature designer roasts and every imaginable combination of espresso, milk, and flavoring. Bars are becoming less grimy and more glamorous, with signature cocktails and craft beer. Well-known fashion and technology brands are vying to occupy locations that receive heavy student (and parent) foot traffic. Entertainment venues like movie theaters are rolling out more services that carry higher prices. Mirroring trends in college pricing, the net effect of upscaling is that virtually everything in college communities is becoming more expensive. No matter where they look, students see opportunities to spend.

In some college communities, upscaling has been part of a purposeful plan to attract wealthy students and encourage faculty, staff, and young professionals to live near campus. As The New York Times recently reported, college communities in Philadelphia, Nashville, and Raleigh are building luxury housing not just for students, but also for members of the “creative class” in an effort to cultivate a “trendy live-work enclave.” The most idealistic of city planners hope that marrying the intellectual vibrancy of colleges with high-end housing replete with amenities will pull in young professionals and spark innovation, business creation, and economic growth. Some college communities—such as those David Brooks labeled “latte towns” in his analysis of the new upper class—have long flourished thanks to synergies between colleges, capital, and creativity.

Yet one question that arises from the upscaling of college communities is what it truly means for students, faculty, and staff. On the one hand, few people complain when an ugly building is torn down and replaced by an exciting restaurant. Who doesn’t want another option for late-night delivery or weekly office lunch? Additionally, from a safety perspective, there is value in students living in newer apartment complexes that are completely up to code. In the interest of work-life balance and protecting the environment, creating a college community in which faculty, staff, and students live nearby campus and forego long commutes is certainly beneficial. In fact, some would call the changes afoot in college communities as “smart growth.”

On the other hand, there is reason to challenge the notion that students, faculty, and staff have become affluent enough to explain and justify upscaling. If anything, research and experience suggests that colleges are welcoming increasing numbers of low-income and financially precarious students. These students may be the first in their family to attend college, they may be working adults, or they may be returning to school after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Upscaling may price out those students who can’t pay to play, causing them to stop out or drop out, either due to financial pressures or a sense of marginalization.

The large proportion of students who rely on financial aid means that taxpayer money may be used to meet higher prices for goods and services. In this way, it is possible that the federal government subsidizes the “trendy live-work enclaves” developing within college communities. There are, of course, students from wealthy families attending college, perhaps enough to create a strong incentive to scale up. Still, the incongruence between mounting student loan debt and the transformation of college communities suggests to me a faulty assumption of affluence among students.

In addition to low-income students, international and graduate students may acutely feel the squeeze occasioned by upscaling. International students are generally not eligible for financial aid, and they may be shocked upon arrival at how far (or, more appropriately, not far) their money goes. We would be naïve to think that all or even a majority of international students come from wealthy families who can pay for what has become the quintessential American college experience. Much of the conversation around luxury housing in college communities has focused upon undergraduate students and young professionals. Graduate students, who may be attempting to support themselves and dependents on a paltry stipend, are seemingly excluded from the calculus of upscaling. As more and more luxury apartments are constructed, it becomes difficult for me to imagine how graduate students make ends meet.

Faculty and staff are perhaps better positioned to enjoy the fruits of upscaling in college communities because they earn a salary. It is true that if you want to convince faculty and staff to live near campus, you need more than cheap beer. Most faculty and staff desire decent housing options, reliable public transportation, good schools, and, if at all possible, places to exercise, relax, and enjoy a meal with family and friends. But this does not mean that faculty and staff seek luxury. Affordable housing and transportation remain paramount concerns, especially given that higher education continues to suffer through budget cuts that make the possibility of merit and cost-of-living pay increases a recurrent department meeting joke. Amidst the steady rise in the proportion of part-time instructional faculty at many colleges, the logic of upscaling is particularly twisted. In other words, while there are certainly benefits to changes underway in college communities, I’m left wondering who, precisely, constitutes the affluent segment of the consumer market.

College communities hold an important position in the American cultural imagination. We easily retrieve images of tree-lined streets, quaint pubs, funky shops, and red brick academic buildings. Having not visited every college community, I would guess that there are many places that still embody this description. However, I have seen enough to contend that our imagination is stuck in a version of college communities from thirty or even fifty years ago. Many of today’s college communities have dramatically changed in ways that require deep pockets to live comfortably. It is not at all coincidental that the college affordability crisis has emerged in tandem with the creation of college communities that are playgrounds for the affluent.