This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.

This Is Not a Marriage of Equals

Ever since we started Open Campus, nearly two years ago now, I’ve been thinking a lot about how colleges connect with their communities — and how their neighbors perceive them.

We got a glimpse of that from some of the people we met on our road trip that first summer: The eatery owner in Minneapolis who’s charted a successful career without college. The St. Louis alderwoman who said trade schools put her on the right path and now works to persuade her neighbors to consider college. A group of local revelers in Oxford, Miss., who were celebrating the life of Ronzo, a beloved townie who embodied everything they say they love about their college town.

For many of the people we talked with, colleges loomed large in their midst. But their personal associations with them sometimes felt fleeting, distanced, even alienating. That sort of disconnection, in fact, shows up in poll after national poll, which have found that the public is losing faith in its colleges. 

What the Pandemic Has Revealed

The relationships between universities and their neighbors have, of course, long been fraught. But now the pandemic has put new pressures on them. I talked with the mayors of a dozen cities — including most of those in the Big Ten — to hear what the past year has revealed about their communities’ ties with their universities, and what may be changing as a result.

What those conversations made clear is this: The relationship is interdependent, but very imbalanced. Universities have an outsized influence in their communities. Many are their city’s largest employer, sometimes by far. Their budgets are bigger and their missions are broader. 

One of the town-gown experts I talked with happens to be a marriage and family therapist. Often when the relationship isn’t working, he says, it’s because the gown is essentially saying to the town: I’m just not that into you.

“Just like in marriages, it takes two to make a relationship,” says Stephen Gavazzi, an Ohio State University professor. “There has to be motivation on both sides or it’s just not going to work.”

You can hear the lopsidedness in how the mayors talk about their relationships:

Christopher Taylor, the mayor of Ann Arbor, calls his partnership with the University of Michigan benevolent but also volitional and asymmetric: “We’re not in the position to force anything.” 

Ronald Filippelli, the mayor of State College, Pennsylvania, is even more blunt about Penn State University, the 1,000-pound gorilla in his town: “It gets whatever it wants.” 

A Turning Point?

What many of the mayors also told me about the pandemic was that it has given them some hope. Several used the word “strengthened” to describe how their relationship with their university has changed this past year. It took a crisis, but they’ve gotten a seat at the table. They’re having more regular interactions with university leaders. They feel noticed. 

Will all of this, though, be enough to prompt lasting shifts in how universities approach their communities? Will many of the nascent ties formed in the COVID-19 era persist? Will regular citizens start to feel more connected?

It will take a while to shift the public’s view, says Aaron Stephens, the mayor of East Lansing, home of Michigan State. Residents regularly ask why the university isn’t doing more. “The answer I have to give is, ‘We’re working on this.’ It’s going to take a little bit more than just one year of cooperation to get something to work.”

+ Read the full story here on Open Campus or at USA Today. Thanks to the Education Writers Association, who supported the project through a Reporting Fellowship.

— Sara Hebel

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Elsewhere on Open Campus

The lab at the new Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine, in El Paso. It’s the first dentistry school in West Texas. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In Colorado: “Colorado banned legacy admissions. But what does that really mean for students?” Few colleges in the state even consider an applicant’s family ties to a school. What the law changes, advocates say, is perception.

In Next: “Free mozzarella sticks or a college degree?” In a suddenly hot job market, employers determined to lure new employees and keep existing ones are turning to new incentives, including education.

In latitude(s): “Mapping global research.” Much of the focus — when it comes to both collaboration and competition — is on the relationship between the United States and China. But that bilateral lens misses out on critical linkages around the world.

In Santa Cruz: “As registration lags further behind, Cabrillo College pivots to a mostly in-person fall.” Enrollment at the community college dropped 18 percent last fall from the previous year — and early numbers for fall 2021 are lagging even further behind. College officials hope that more in-person courses will help.

In El Paso: “Texas Tech El Paso dental school is the first of its kind in a border city.” More than half of the state’s dentists practice in the five most populous counties. “So the rest of Texas is underserved,” the school’s dean says.

In The Job: “A troubling lack of skills in literacy and numeracy.” One in five employed American adults with a bachelor’s degree lacks important skills in literacy, with one in three falling below proficient levels in numeracy.


For some former college students, the pandemic opened a door to finish their
Some universities amid the pandemic have turned their attention to former students who dropped out before earning their degrees.

Western Michigan University gets $550-million donation, a national record

The anonymous donation is the largest single gift ever given to a public university in the nation.

HBCUs wipe out unpaid student

Historically Black colleges and universities are forgiving students’ debts with the hopes of alleviating some of the financial strains of the pandemic.

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