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Putting Their Towns on the Map

Baltimore and Philadelphia institutional and city planners are working together to create great college towns.

By Anna Jackson

Question: Name a city with a bevy of students that has a great college-town feel. Of course the answer is a matter of opinion, but these cities are often name-dropped because their multiple colleges and universities draw in quality students and, following graduation, many alumni stay put. The online database ePodunk of more than 46,000 communities recently ranked Boston-Cambridge as the nation’s top college town for a “big” city. While the report is not wholly scientific, it does shed light on the perceptions of our nation’s higher education hubs. A new type of partnership is emerging that brings together campus and city stakeholders to perform a community image makeover. By joining forces, these stakeholders hope to achieve a broader goal: selling their city as a “great college town.”

In the mid-1990s, the Baltimore Collegetown Network (BCN) was born. It began as a grassroots effort when several chief financial officers at Baltimore-area institutions pondered why Boston and Berkeley got all the attention for being great college towns. With several institutions in close proximity as well as cultural, social, athletic, and historic venues, BCN’s founders felt their city was being overlooked. What began as a smaller, less formal collaboration of institutions has grown to a 16-member consortium with defined objectives. The network’s primary focus is to attract students and engage them in the community during college and beyond, but it also strives to bridge the physical gap among area institutions.

Travel approximately 100 miles northeast, and you’ll find another city and group of institutions working toward a similar goal. In Philadelphia, the collegetown notion evolved from a conference in 2000 and now includes 20 partner institutions in the greater Philly area. The umbrella organization—Knowledge Industry Partnership—unites city and institutional planners in the One Big Campus Initiative, which strives to promote the notion that “Philadelphia is one big campus.” The KIP collaboration includes three core programs, each offering resources for different audiences. Like BCN, Philadelphia’s programs aim to attract students to the area to attend college and provide outlets for social, cultural, and career development once they are there.

Philadelphia and Baltimore are both home to several well-regarded colleges and universities in addition to smaller, lesser-known institutions. Baltimore-area institutions enroll more than 100,000 students and combined pump more than $3.3 billion into the local economy. Meanwhile, Philadelphia institutions award 54,000 degrees per year and add more than $6.4 billion to the economy. However, neither city has been able to achieve the draw that Boston and Berkeley enjoy. If BCN and KIP planners succeed, that may soon change.

Attract, Engage, Retain

The Baltimore and Philadelphia networks are both pursuing a three-pronged strategy to improve their respective collegetown images: attract, engage, retain. First, to attract quality students to the area, promote prospective students’ awareness of each city as an enticing college town. Second, once they are enrolled, engage students in all the city has to offer—culture, sports, shopping, volunteerism, and internships. Third, by enhancing student experiences and promoting community engagement, tackle the “brain drain” phenomenon and retain students in the region after graduation.

According to Executive Director Kristen Campbell, BCN has programs to target each stage of the student experience. As part of its marketing campaign, the network produces three publications, each with slightly different messages, which promote the merits of attending college in Baltimore. The BCN Web site (www .baltimorecollegetown.org) has a variety of information for prospective and current students—upcoming activities, dining, nightlife, shopping, and sports and recreation opportunities. By partnering with community leaders, the network hopes to engage students in several ways: offering half-price tickets to local cultural venues, and organizing volunteer days at Baltimore public schools, among other activities. Finally, through collaboration in the network, campus career centers pro vide a single internship form that makes it easier for local businesses to post internships and students to apply.

In Philadelphia, the attract, engage, retain principles are sometimes interchanged with the keywords arrive, explore, achieve. The KIP model separates each stage of the college experience and, rather than pursuing a marketing strategy, the group describes its work as community building. The partnership is composed of three primary programs: Campus Visit/ Philadelphia (www.onebigcampus.com) for prospective students; Campus Philly (www.campusphilly.org) for enrolled students; and Career Philly (www.career philly.com) for students post-graduation. By separating the objectives, students can immediately find information that is relevant to them, whether it’s city happenings, upcoming social and cultural events, or job and internship advice and postings. Jon Herrmann is executive director of Campus Philly, a primarily student-run effort that distributes a weekly e-mail with upcoming events to approximately 18,000 students, provides discounted tickets for area attractions, and hosts the annual Campus Philly Kickoff with bands and entertainment to welcome students back in the fall.

Secondary Benefits

Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Beyond

More projects like those in Philadelphia and Baltimore are being developed in cities across the country. As these projects take shape, city and institutional planners may look to the Baltimore and Philadelphia consortiums as viable models. Other resources are also available to interested community and institutional stakeholders. In Chicago, for instance, Higher Education in the Loop and South Loop: An Impact Study examined the impact of more than 20 higher education institutions on the Chicago economy (www.greaterstatestreet.com/documents/ HighEdStudyFinalReport.pdf).

The consulting firm Collegia specializes in this type of regional partnership and oversees the Philadelphia consortium in addition to similar projects in Boston and Pittsburgh. Collegia works with campus and community stakeholders to leverage the strength of their higher education institutions to improve the economic viability of the region. Meanwhile, for communities seeking a grassroots approach, the college town strategy is becoming more prevalent in higher education planning discussions. At the Society for College and University Planning annual meeting in July, numerous concurrent sessions were devoted to town-gown relationships and planning initiatives. In addition, there is a magazine-style Web site that features news and current issues relevant to college town living: College Town Life. On this site, no bit of information is spared—everything from town profiles to reports, articles, and current issues affecting students and residents living and working in college towns throughout the country.

College-town initiatives like BCN and KIP put a new spin on the town-gown relationship. Leaders must balance the myriad goals of local institutions with those of city planners. These partnerships offer unique opportunities for collaboration and they succeed because, according to planners, institutions work together in a noncompetitive manner to contribute to the greater good of the region. Each institution also benefits, of course, but the merits of participation extend beyond the admissions department.

John Palmucci, vice president for finance and treasurer at Loyola College in Maryland, has been involved with the Baltimore project since its inception. He says there are three primary types of benefits of participation in the consortium: political, economic, and collaborative. In the Baltimore area, the network is giving institutions a greater political standing with the mayor than they would enjoy individually. In addition to sharing academic resources, some campuses are engaging in joint purchasing. Finally, Palmucci says the BCN has enhanced professional development because a variety of campus departments now meet with their regional peers regularly.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Carol de Fries, executive director of the office of government, community and public affairs, says the campus experiences similar networking perks through collaboration in the KIP programs. She serves on the board of the Campus Philly project and says this role has afforded her the opportunity to connect with other senior members at area institutions. The project brings together different campus departments, including government affairs, the president’s office, student life, career services, and student government. “Because Philadelphia has organized itself to address the brain drain, there is closer collaboration on many other issues as well in higher education that I believe are a result of this initiative,” de Fries says. One such example is a regional council of campus presidents founded by the local chamber of commerce to address issues such as community service, shared library resources, and joint purchasing.

The Baltimore network is using the collaboration to enhance the academic offerings available to area students. Institutions have developed an open-door policy for library use and cross-registration. These policies allow students to borrow books and register for up to two courses per semester at other member institutions. Recognizing the limitations of Baltimore’s public transportation system, BCN introduced the Collegetown Shuttle six years ago, and it now shuttles more than 65,000 riders each academic year to area campuses and social destinations. While these services may not be unique, such efforts help to break down the physical boundaries between campuses—a notion that the president of the BCN governing board hopes to expand in coming years.

For the most part, the Philadelphia network has remained focused on the arrive, explore, achieve strategy and has yet to tackle academic collaboration. Several Philadelphia-area institutions participate in academic consortiums that far predate the KIP efforts. By enhancing the college experience, however, de Fries believes that students have been the primary beneficiaries of the college-town efforts. “Part of Penn’s academic experience is to emphasize that students need to put their education into practice and by doing so they become engaged citizens of the world,” she says. Further, de Fries and others believe that the region ultimately benefits if quality students matriculate to the area, become active citizens during college, and remain connected to the university and community as engaged alumni.

However beneficial these consortiums are in enhancing regional collaboration, they do serve a distinct—and perhaps limited— purpose. “If you look at this group of institutions, these are not our peers,” Palmucci says of Loyola’s participation in BCN. “Aside from our proximity, there’s nothing that makes us comparable.” He recognizes the merits of participation in this consortium but balances that with his continued involvement in other institutional networking outlets.

Getting On the Same Page

As Palmucci notes, regional collaboration brings together a broad mix of colleges and universities—public, independent, large, small, religious, and specialized. A participant pool that transcends constituencies is important for two reasons: Prospective students have a variety of institutions from which to choose and, given their differences, the institutions usually do not compete for students. While diversity provides strength to the network’s mission, leaders face challenges in meeting the needs of each institution, not to mention community stakeholders’ needs.

Catering to such diversity can be difficult. According to de Fries, each institution has its own goals for the program. Penn hopes to cultivate students that are good citizens of the community as well as to promote Philadelphia as a premiere city for higher education. For other institutions, however, the project provides an opportunity to expand their recruitment efforts or to supplement their student life opportunities with joint events. But within each campus, it is also tough to get the various departments to communicate effectively, especially when they may not be accustomed to doing so. This requires juggling multiple objectives and projects by various decision makers, notes Jon Herrmann of Campus Philly.

Baltimore experiences similar challenges. “In a partnership like ours, you’re not going to have all 16 institutions excited about every project,” Campbell says of BCN. “It’s hard to find the balance sometimes and that certainly poses challenges, but in a good way.” The consortium undertakes new projects as issues are identified and allows participating institutions to pick and choose programs that fit their needs. Campbell points out that this makes the network flexible and dynamic while still providing campuses with “a backbone of support.”

Since its inception, Campus Philly has enjoyed a strong partnership with the city and state government. In fact, Herrmann says the project was by and large a city-led initiative. The project is nonprofit and funded by the city commerce; state government; grants, sponsors, and advertisers; and dues from the 20 participating institutions. The commitment of the city government has been vital to the project’s success, Herrmann says. “Working with the Philly government has been great. We truly wouldn’t be here if the city didn’t actively support this project.”

Given Philadelphia’s location, it made sense for the network to expand to New Jersey and Delaware institutions. Generating participation from across state lines has proven more difficult than expanding partnerships on the Pennsylvania side of the river. However, Herrmann contends that these obstacles are educational. “We are always building relationships and fostering good communication among the various stakeholders,” he says.

The Baltimore network also has a strong community base, including representatives from area businesses that serve on the Leadership Advisory Council. BCN, like KIP, is a nonprofit organization supported by member institution dues and sponsorship revenue. Not surprisingly, funding can also be difficult for the consortium. “Our current campaign to attract, engage, and retain students benefits the larger community in addition to our member institutions,” notes Campbell. “For that reason we are trying to broaden our base of support to include more businesses as well as local and state governments.”

Measuring Progress and Success

With programs serving each attract, engage, retain goal, BCN leaders have developed metrics for evaluating progress and success. The network’s three publications sell different aspects of the Baltimore collegetown notion. These marketing materials are distributed to guidance counselors at high schools in addition to network institutions. According to Campbell, BCN evaluates the effectiveness of these materials based in part on whether additional copies are requested. In addition, the network tracks the number of visits to www.baltimorecollegetown.org, which has now risen to 20,000 unique visits per month. The network is also surveying students to gauge if and how their perceptions of Baltimore change as a result of their college experience. Finally, feedback from campus administrators is also valuable.

Resources

Baltimore Collegetown Network: www.baltimorecollegetown.org
Campus Visit/Philadelphia: www.onebigcampus.com
Campus Philly: www.campusphilly.org
Career Philly: www.careerphilly.com

The Philadelphia network uses similar metrics to evaluate the success of its programs, Herrmann explains. For the Campus Philly initiative, organizers are interested in the level of participation in programs such as the annual kickoff festival. The group also conducts surveys to gauge student perceptions of Philadelphia and what impacts their desire to stay in the area following graduation. According to a January 2004 KIP survey of 2,500 Philadelphia-area graduates, 64 percent stayed in the area following graduation. An area of improvement for the consortium is retaining non-native Philadelphians. The KIP survey shows that only 29 percent of these students stayed in the area following graduation. While these statistics are interesting, Herrmann notes that longitudinal data will be important in evaluating the initiative’s success as it matures.

A Winning Scenario

Conversation Starter

Is your institution part of a collaborative effort similar to the initiatives outlined in this article? Are you collaborating with area institutions in other ways? Let us know; e-mail jane.rooney@nacubo.org.

Campbell believes the college-town model could be successful for other cities and, as it turns out, Philadelphia and Baltimore are not alone in their quest to transform their community’s college-town image. Similar projects are sprouting up in Boston; Pittsburgh; Northeast Ohio; Lehigh Valley, Lancaster, and Williamsport-Lycoming (PA); and Milwaukee (see sidebar, “Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Beyond”). In Baltimore’s experience, “the synergy just came together,” she notes. What’s key, in Campbell’s opinion, is the proximity of several institutions that do not have a lot of academic overlap. She adds, “It is amazing to see so many institutions work well together, but this is primarily because there is not a lot of competition between campuses and there is the common backdrop of Baltimore that brings us together. We want all of our institutions to prosper and we want this city to grow.”

Herrmann thinks that as other regions recognize the benefits of the model, the trend will dovetail. He says the collegetown partnership is a winning scenario for all involved. “Student affairs see this as a great benefit because students have a good college experience,” he explains. “In turn, the city benefits if students stay in the area following graduation.”

Some cities have the luxury of a long-standing reputation as great college towns. For other communities, however, diligence and a unified strategy are needed to accomplish a community image makeover. And certainly, given the benefits such a partnership affords to institutional and city planners alike, more communities may clamor to become the next great college town.

Author Bio Anna Jackson, Chicago, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.
E-mail jackson.anna@gmail.com