The American College Town*

By Gumprecht, Blake | The Geographical Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

The American College Town*


Gumprecht, Blake, The Geographical Review


The literary critic Henry Seidel Canby once wrote, "Surely it is amazing that neither history, nor sociology, nor fiction, has given more than passing attention to the American college town, for surely it has had a character and a personality unlike other towns" (1936, 3). Nearly four decades later, Wilbur Zelinsky observed that the social and cultural geography of college communities is "almost totally terra incognita" (1973, 136). Indeed, no major study of the college town has yet been published, despite the prominent image such towns have in American culture and the important role they have played in the lives of many Americans. (1)

In essence, the hundreds of college towns in the United States are an academic archipelago: Similar to one another, they differ in several important ways from other cities and the regions in which they are located. They are alike in their youthful and comparatively diverse populations, their highly educated workforces, their relative absence of heavy industry, and the presence in them of cultural opportunities more typical of large cities. The attributes of the institutions located in college towns and the people who live in them, furthermore, breed unusual landscapes--the campus, fraternity row, the college-oriented shopping district (Figure 1), the student ghetto, and more.

This study fills a gap in the literature by presenting a concise portrait of the college town in the United States. My goal is to demonstrate that the college town is a unique type of urban place and thus deserves in-depth consideration by scholars and others who are interested in the American experience.

DEFINING THE COLLEGE TOWN

This study considers as a college town any city where a college or university and the cultures it creates exert a dominant influence over the character of the community. This definition is deliberately imprecise because there is not a clear distinction between a college town and a city that is merely home to a college. They vary along a continuum. In this study I focus on towns in which institutions of higher education are clearly dominant. I will not discuss cities such as Austin, Texas, which possess major universities but are also state capitals, or university communities like Tempe, Arizona, which are part of major metropolitan areas, because the socioeconomic diversity of such places dilutes the influence of a collegiate culture. (2) Although Austin and Tempe possess some of the attributes of college towns, particularly in areas closest to campus, what makes the college town as envisioned by this study different is that the impact of a collegiate culture is more concentrated and conspicuous. In towns like Ithaca, New York, and Manhattan, Kansas, colleges and their people shape the urban personality.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

To gauge a college's influence on a town, I considered my firsthand knowledge of numerous college towns and asked questions about hundreds of cities with colleges and universities that can be answered statistically: Is the college the largest employer in town? What is the enrollment of the college, compared with the population of the city? What percentage of the labor force works in educational occupations?

Using these and other indicators, published sources about cities with colleges, and personal experience, I chose 59 towns for closer study (Figure 2). The study towns range in size from Eugene, Oregon, with a 2000 population of 137,893, to Princess Anne, Maryland, with a population of 2,313. In 2000, in all but two towns, college students made up at least 20 percent of the population, perhaps the most basic barometer of a college's influence. I chose cities from all parts of the United States; in all, thirty-four states are represented. The study towns are home to a range of college types--public research universities, private liberal arts colleges, land-grant institutions, regional state universities, church-related colleges, and historically black colleges. …

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