Three months ago, the college fiscal crisis was a fringe issue. Enrollment was already dropping, sure; but the brand-name schools didn’t seem to be affected and the colleges that had to shut their doors were either tiny, mostly-unknown liberal arts colleges or for-profits. No worries; Pura Vida.
Three months ago, there were plenty of remote workers. Remote work grew steadily, but mostly at the margins of corporate culture: some corporate success stories, a few vocal advocates, but no widespread corporate acceptance.
Things are different now. The pandemic shot these two glacial processes through a time warp in the span of a few months. Colleges and the towns they’ve made flourish are now in deep, imminent financial doo-doo. (Coronavirus Pushes Colleges To The Breaking Point; Coronavirus Will End The Golden Age For College Towns. American office-workers now work completely from home; this policy will last until the end of 2020 for many and will likely shift millions of office jobs to fully-remote workers. Top tech firms like Facebook and Twitter announced plans for permanent remote work; other companies will surely follow suit. (I’m keeping an index of company announcements here.)
Problem, meet solution. The current financial precarity of colleges and the massive increase in full-time remote workers are preconditions that could result in a new symbiosis: a happy marriage between remote workers and college towns.
Without a corporate tether to expensive superstar cities and their superpriced real estate, new remote-work converts—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 superstar 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 the wave of economic malaise coming for many of their peers. As towns establish themselves as centers for remote workers, the communities that result will allow workers to realize the promised benefits of remoteness—higher quality of life at lower cost—without paying for it via social isolation.
How to Build It
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 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. (The program also famously gave participants $10,000 each, but I suspect this was actually much 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 that exists at colleges. It would be straightforward to bootstrap 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, 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 the local businesses of 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 fully-loaded 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 bring the dorm to the worker; could new startups bring the worker back to the dorm?)
If You Build It, Will They Come?
Would remote workers move to college towns? Resounding yes. College towns are the ideal landing pad for remote workers relocating from superstar cities. They are cheap compared to the coastal tech hubs but still tend more educated and more politically liberal than towns and small cities of similar sizes. They have decent restaurants and bars. They have at least one sturdy community pillar in the form of—duh—the college. The campuses themselves 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. The natural traits of college towns already make them compelling options for relocating workers; a remote-work community that facilitates a soft landing makes the opportunity too good to pass up.
Tell Me I’m Wrong
Look, I have a hunch that many will find the pairing of college towns and remote workers grotesque. (“Keep them hoodie-wearing growth marketers off of my quad!") But I suspect some of you might find the idea compelling. Either way, I’d love to hear from you.