By John L. Gann Jr.
Have you heard about the high school kid who was so adept at playing video games that he won an athletic scholarship to an online university?
Beneath the laugh at today’s virtual world is a less exaggerated but more sober reality. The growth of distance learning with for-credit courses and online degrees from both campus-based and online schools promises to challenge the economies of college towns and university neighborhoods everywhere.
In most cases, campuses will not go away. But they will face more and more competition on the Internet, which is lower-priced, better in quality and more convenient. That means that for many, their traditional near-exclusive function of providing older teenagers with four or more years of formal, on-site instruction leading to a degree is likely to diminish.
And college town businesses — stores, services, restaurants, landlords — will face harder going when “college student” and “on campus” are — for the first time ever — no longer inextricably tied.
To secure their economic futures, colleges and college towns will benefit accordingly from finding additional things to do. One possibility ideally suited to these places might just be found emerging from the past.
Travel experiences with a difference
It’s “the most American thing in America,” said Theodore Roosevelt. He was talking about Chautauqua, a summer-long educational, cultural and entertainment festival originating in Chautauqua, N.Y., in 1874.
By the 1920s, “daughter” Chautauquas were found at hundreds of other permanent locations in rural America. Multiple-day visitors could enjoy lectures, Broadway plays, music, instruction and outdoor recreation. A companion road show version served 45 million people in all but three states. Chautauqua’s decline in the 1930s was caused by the Depression as well as by new technologies like radio, movies and the automobile, which reduced the isolation of rural places.
But many of today’s more numerous college-educated families seek travel experiences with a difference. So the 139-year-old idea is now making a comeback at a few of the locations that survived and new ones that have come along since.
The original site and an Ohio version on Lake Erie each now draw 100,000 paying customers every year. Yet Chautauqua is still “one of America’s best-kept secrets,” noted Steve Odland in Forbes. But it doesn’t have to be because we have ready-made potential Chautauquas all around the country. They’re our college towns.
Today, college towns offer what the Chautauquas did, albeit almost exclusively to a single demographic: post-high school students. Chautauqua-style facilities and instruction staff are already in place, paid for and little-used during the traditional Chautauqua season. And unlike the 14 current U.S. Chautauquas (none is in a college town, and only one is in the West), campuses are well-distributed around the country.
Some college towns that have opened their classes and campus facilities to aging alums are already becoming sought-after retirement venues. What might be the effect on the college town economy if colleges opened themselves to visitors of all ages during lucrative summer vacation periods when most campuses are asleep?
Of course, today much of what Chautauqua summers once provided is widely available year-round. Does that mean that despite some recent growth, this is still an idea whose time has passed?
Crafts, comedy, jazz
Maybe not. Passive, arm’s-length sightseeing, for example, is now more easily done than ever with picture books, films, TV and the Web, yet people still travel to experience the real thing. And the best Chautauqua-style offerings are anything but passive. A challenge to the intellect and a sharing of a special experience with like-minded people are things you don’t always get in other ways.
If we had anywhere near as many Chautauqua programs as we have college campuses, there could even be specialty Chautauquas tailored to the diverse identities and interests more prominent in our own time. Programs could serve artists and crafters, environmental enthusiasts, classic car fans on holiday, or vacationers who are into gospel music, sports, comedy, healthful living, Jewish interests, jazz, Asian cultures, you name it.
The baby boomers are our largest demographic market and the first to be so widely college-educated. Soporific inactivity even in vacations or retirement is not their style. But an updated Chautauqua in a college town could be.
To make that happen, colleges will have to find ways to tailor and sell what they offer to mature, been-around-the-track folks who already have all the degrees they need.
Is there a market that college town leaders might do well to explore for summer experiences that are not just the same-old, same-old and that could boost local economies? If so, the Chautauqua idea may be worth revisiting. It’s not every economic development idea, after all, that comes with a popular president’s bully personal endorsement.
— John L. Gann Jr. consults, trains and writes on marketing places for economic growth. He is the author of “The Third Lifetime Place: A New Economic Opportunity for College Towns.” This column originally appeared in the September 2013 edition of University Business (www.universitybusiness.com/article/new-role-old-college-towns) and is reprinted with permission.