At the start of 2020, the fiscal crisis for US higher education was a fringe issue. Enrollment was already dropping, but the brand-name schools didn’t seem to be affected. The colleges that had to shut their doors were either tiny, little-known liberal arts colleges or for-profit schools that few would miss.
Also at the start of 2020, there were lots of remote workers. They were mostly at the margins of corporate culture, but their numbers were growing steadily.
The pandemic shot both trends through a time warp in the span of a few months. Universities and the towns they’ve made flourish are on the precipice of a serious crisis. American office-workers now work largely from home, with millions likely to stay in those arrangements through the end of 2020 and beyond. (I’m keeping an index of company announcements about work-from-home policies here.)
Problem, meet solution. The financial precarity of colleges and the massive increase in fully remote workers are preconditions that could result in a new symbiosis between remote workers and college towns.
Without a corporate tether to expensive cities for industry superstars and their super-priced real estate, many remote-work converts—who are typically educated knowledge workers with disposable income—will seek to move elsewhere. When they do, they’ll look for vibrant communities in educated cities and suburbs that are still drastically cheaper than the cities they leave. In other words, they will seek places that look like college towns.
Colleges and college towns should aggressively court these new remote workers. Towns that do so successfully could stave off the wave of economic malaise coming for many of their peers. And the communities that result will allow workers to realize some of the primary benefits of remoteness—namely, a higher quality of life at lower cost—without paying for it in social isolation.
To build a community of remote workers, you must first have remote workers: a classic cold-start problem. How might a college town bootstrap this community-building engine?
One option is to follow the lead of the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s Tulsa Remote program, which gave participants memberships to a co-working space and created Slack channels and Facebook groups where Tulsans and remote-working newcomers could meet and make plans. (Tulsa Remote also famously gave participants $10,000 each to relocate to Tulsa, but this buzzy perk, while critical to the program’s marketing, was arguably less critical to the program’s success than the vibrant community that was created.)
College towns have a community-building advantage because of the strong social infrastructure they already have. It would be straightforward to set up social events for remote workers by integrating with existing student groups—a hike organized by an outdoors organization might be open to both students and workers. (Some college groups are already like this. Back when I spun R&B at the MIT radio station, the majority of shows were hosted by Cantabrigian locals, not MIT students.) The combination of remote workers and students could be a powerful pairing for programmers and technologists, for instance, strengthening the bridge between academia and industry in college towns that lie far from traditional tech hubs.
Attracting a flock of remote workers with disposable income would obviously be good for local businesses in a college town. But what about the college itself? Remote workers are not likely to make up for losses of students paying $60,000 in annual tuition, but colleges still might find creative ways to offer valuable services to remote workers from which they can collect revenue: part-time coursework for continuing education; career counseling aimed specifically at remote workers; subscriptions for use of campus services like libraries and gyms.
More radically (and profitably), colleges could create on-campus co-working spaces, or repurpose extra campus housing for co-living. Startups like Common already bring the dorm to the worker; could new startups bring the worker back to the dorm?
College towns are the ideal landing pad for remote workers relocating from big cities. They are cheap compared to the coastal tech hubs, and their residents tend to be more educated and more politically liberal than towns and small cities of similar sizes. They typically have decent restaurants and bars. The campuses themselves tend to have beautiful, tuition-funded architecture, and public spaces that double as parks. They are often close to great outdoor recreational opportunities. They have fast internet.
Some workers have roots which will keep them in their superstar cities even if they work from home. But many itch for greener pastures, and remote work opens up the frontier.