“We are 30 minutes from a Starbucks,” quipped James F. Jones Jr.
That line from the now former president of Sweet Briar College in an interview with Inside Higher Ed on the day he announced the school was closing illustrated just how isolated the women’s college is from everything in southwestern Virginia.
This summer, as high-school students go on college tours, they’ll likely only pay attention to a school’s location in terms of the surrounding amenities: Are there enough restaurants and bars? Is it close to the beach or the mountains? I’ll never forget my mom’s remark as we drove the last 30 miles into Ithaca, N.Y. the summer before my senior year of high school: Just what are you going to do here?
But a college’s location should mean more to students than whether they can quickly grab a tall cappuccino before class. Even in a virtual age, where it is easy to connect to anyone and anything, a college’s physical place in the world matters more than ever before in the ultimate success of graduates.
Earning a college degree is no longer just about sitting in a classroom following a script outlined by a course catalog or a professor at the front of a lecture hall. And it’s not only about the experience of living in a dorm or participating in activities on the campus. The value of higher ed increasingly comes from what happens off campus — the so-called experiential learning embedded in research projects, volunteer work, internships, apprenticeships, and study abroad.
In order to experience those off-campus opportunities, students either need to travel or go to a school in a place that has a strong and diverse economy offering a multitude of options for experiential learning. This is a big reason why many of the colleges and universities that have improved their reputations dramatically in the past several decades are in cities: the University of Southern California, Boston University and Northeastern, New York University, Miami University, and American and George Washington universities.
In cities like Washington, D.C., you see experiential learning at play every day. While most college students who want to intern in the nation’s capital must do so during the summer, those who go to college in Washington can use the city as their campus any time.