News & Opinion | May 9, 2020 9:00 am

How Will COVID-19 Affect Colleges and Universities in Cities?

Thinking about the future of academia during an uncertain time

Columbia University
Columbia University.
Creative Commons

For students attending a college or university in a city, the combination of the two can offer numerous benefits. For some, that might involve close proximity to a thriving artistic scene; for others, being near potential work opportunities might be appealing. But with COVID-19 temporarily closing campuses and pushing coursework into the remote learning realm, that’s led to a substantial change in this balance. And given that no one really knows when things will be back to something approaching normal, it’s worth considering that the future might hold for institutions of higher learning within cities.

In a new article for The Wall Street Journal, Richard Florida and Jeffrey Selingo explore the questions facing urban universities. Florida and Selingo note that highly-rated schools within cities are still a relatively recent phenomenon — and that they’ve helped to transform the neighborhoods around them:

These urban universities benefited immensely from the buzz and liveliness of their surrounding neighborhoods, which in turn propelled further gentrification, making some of them, like the area surrounding NYU, among the most desirable and expensive ZIP codes in the country.

Whether or not this relationship is a mutually beneficial one is an entirely different topic of discussion. For now, the issues that Florida and Selingo raise are more existential in nature. But they also point to the ways universities have been helpful in the fight against COVID-19. “The ways that urban universities and their cities reinforce and need one another has never been more apparent,” write Florida and Selingo.

If the Fall 2020 semester begins with many urban campuses still shuttered, the co-authors propose a number of measures, from a public service program to students spending a semester or two at more rural universities which may have re-opened. Their article offers plenty to ponder, with a note of optimism for the future.

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