10/12/2011 10:27 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2011

For Colleges, Location Matters

Even if college students in the future are likely to take more of their classes online, few of us think that the vast majority of bricks-and-mortar campuses will disappear, at least not overnight.

Like real estate, location matters in higher ed. But unlike many homeowners, colleges looking for a better neighborhood can't simply hang a "For Sale" sign and move to a more desirable place.

That's problematic for colleges in struggling small towns and declining manufacturing cities. It's sometimes difficult for them to attract prospective students and faculty members, or keep entrepreneurial young alumni around to build new businesses. And as the economies of those towns deteriorate further, local officials have few employers to turn to for help. Often colleges are asked to take on demands well beyond their mission.

In response, some colleges have taken on the role of the Chamber of Commerce, by revitalizing abandoned off-campus properties and helping to cultivate start-ups.

Is Helping the Local Community Serious Research?

Syracuse University is going one step further, with an effort led by its chancellor to focus the institution's research on that rust-belt city. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last week, the effort, dubbed Scholarship in Action, "involves moving students, professors, and research off the campus and into the community to work with local officials, nonprofit organizations, and businesses on projects designed to give students hands-on experience and help solve the problems of the city and its people."

The push by the chancellor, Nancy Cantor, has not been without its critics, as the article points out (as well as the dozens of comments, both positive and negative, the story drew). Detractors question if Scholarship in Action is serious research, and, as evidence, some of them note that Syracuse recently left the prestigious Association of American Universities before being forced out because its federal science and engineering research hadn't kept pace with peer institutions.

I'm not sure when a club of some 60 elite universities got the authority to set the research agenda, for the country or for individual universities. While presidents of many aspirational colleges see AAU membership as a stamp of approval -- that they have "arrived" -- Cantor seems to think her research agenda better serves the city of Syracuse.

Perhaps it better serves the broader economy, too. Not every university can or should be a top-50 research institution. We definitely need leading universities to discover tomorrow's innovations, but as we figure a way out of these economic doldrums, we also need colleges that help their local communities grow. Sometimes those two goals are compatible; sometimes they are not. Striving universities that waste time and money pursuing an ambitious research agenda do so at the risk of ignoring their regional needs and are really no better as an institution in the end.

A Growing Divide Between Educated Cities and Everyone Else

Brain power in this country is increasingly clustering around a handful of dominant metropolitan areas. After a century when the economic rewards and cultural bounties were distributed throughout the United States, we have entered an age when the creative juices and financial rewards are centered on a select group of cities and urban areas. More than half the world's population now lives in cities and metro areas, a percentage that is expected to grow to more than 70 percent by 2050.

The author Richard Florida maintains that, as cities grow larger, "the synapses that connect them -- people with exceptional social skills -- are becoming ever more essential to economic growth."

Of course, universities are hubs within cities that connect those people. The colleges lucky enough to be located in these dominant regions will thrive. Meanwhile, the cities and regions left behind will struggle, along with their higher-ed institutions that have little choice but to stay put. That's unless more universities like Syracuse focus less on becoming yet another institution that tries to squeeze into the top 10 on some list, and instead dedicate resources to helping revive their communities and build human capital for the new economy.