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The Difference Between a College Town and a Town with Colleges

We're on the road. Our first stops are in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, where we're talking with peo
The Weekly Dispatch
We’re on the road. Our first stops are in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, where we’re talking with people about the role of college in their lives and neighborhoods.

The Missing Piece
Along this bend in the Mississippi River where Iowa is on the north side and Illinois the south, sit the Quad Cities. The area was once dominated by three manufacturers: International Harvester, John Deere, and Caterpillar. Two of the three left decades ago; John Deere stayed but got smaller. 
The manufacturing mindset is still pervasive, Mark Salisbury told us over lunch as we looked out on the river: “It’s barges, it’s cement factories, it’s the Alcoa plant.” As the former college administrator says a couple times, the Quad Cities is two states, five cities, and 380,000 people. 
Here’s what it’s not: a college town.
Sure, at first glance it seems like a bunch of institutions are here. There’s Augustana College, a 2,600-student liberal-arts college in Rock Island, Ill., on a 115-acre campus pretty enough to be a wedding photo backdrop when we stopped by on Thursday afternoon. Just three miles across the river, in Davenport, is St. Ambrose University, a 3,000-student Catholic liberal-arts college. Each side of the river has a community college. And Western Illinois University opened a new campus in Moline, Ill., in 2012 to much fanfare.
Scratch a little deeper and you’ll see all that is missing from the higher-ed landscape in this metropolitan area (an area with more people than Ann Arbor, Mich., Eugene, Ore., or Montgomery, Ala.). There’s no research university. No residential public regional. No former teachers college now expanding with new graduate programs. That Western Illinois campus? Two great-looking new buildings, but just 700 students.
Of course, some people growing up here do see options.
Anna Dybro’s dad has worked for decades at John Deere. Her parents socked money away for all their kids’ college educations but Anna still wanted to make a “value” decision. She toured Urbana-Champaign. Too dirty. She checked out Northern Illinois, but was turned off by their lack of transparency about a campus shooting years ago. 
She thought about going to University of Iowa. But that would have cost her $30,000 a year, she said. Staying at home, working at a restaurant in Davenport, and commuting to Western Illinois, where tuition is just $9,000, struck her as the obvious financial choice.
“I’m not a person who’s going to go into debt, I’ll tell you that,” she told us. “I’m getting a great value here so it doesn’t feel like much of a sacrifice.”
Kurt Pacha, 31, spent Thursday night serving ice cream at an outdoor concert in downtown Moline. He grew up in Davenport, and wanted to stay close to home for college. So after starting at the local community college, he stuck in town to finish a bachelor’s degree at St. Ambrose. 
Kurt loves living here, the low cost of living especially. It’s hard not to love a night like this. Gorgeous weather. The Candymakers, a “rock n’ soul” band, playing for hundreds of people. Kids running through the fountain. Parents eating tacos, drinking beer. No one was worried about the Quad Cities’ lack of a powerful four-year public university. 
For us, though, the visit was a reminder that higher education’s impact isn’t spread evenly across the nation. There are pockets — sometimes surprising ones — where historical happenstance and political forces mean college is more on the sidelines than you’d think.
One Corner in North Minneapolis
Juxtaposition Skate-able Art Plaza at Emerson and Broadway in Minneapolis
Juxtaposition Skate-able Art Plaza at Emerson and Broadway in Minneapolis
On the first morning of our road trip, we decided to follow a friend’s recommendation and head to the Cookie Cart. It’s a nonprofit bakery on the north side of Minneapolis that gives teens jobs and broader business and leadership training. We got there before it opened but were immediately drawn in by the entire block’s energy. 
At Emerson and Broadway, the skate park was coming to life. A new mural was taking shape. Sammy’s Avenue Eatery was serving up a steady stream of breakfast sandwiches and coffee. We ended up spending hours there.
In some ways, the topic of education was front and center. A billboard above the Cookie Cart sent a stark message: “Minnesota schools are worst in the nation for our children of color.” A local foundation is trying to call attention to the state’s low high-school graduation rates for black and Hispanic students. Inside the bakery, behind the counter, a poster reflected an optimistic vision: “Future College Graduates Succeed at Cookie Cart.” (Yes, we ate cookies: a snickerdoodle and a gingersnap.)
Start talking to people, and the deeper ways college does — and does not — shape careers, success, and meaning in lives becomes apparent, too. Read more about some of the people we met:

  • Sammy McDowell, who lasted two weeks at a community college and now owns a thriving eatery.
  • Kenya McKnight, a CEO who has seven years of college and no degree.
  • Phyllis Braxton, whose life was transformed 25 years ago by a graduate program.
507 miles down. 1,031 to go.
The odometer doesn’t lie. We’ve been at this for just a few days, and we’ve got several more ahead of us. Here’s where we’re heading:
  • Bloomington, Ill.
  • St. Louis, Mo.
  • Memphis, Tenn.
  • Little Rock, Ark.
  • Jackson, Miss.
  • New Orleans, La.
You can follow along on Twitter at @opencampusmedia and on our super-small Instagram account at opencampusmedia where you’ll see such gems as this from an amazing statue outside Kinnick Stadium at the University of Iowa:
If you’re in one of the cities we’re headed to, please do reach out. We’d love to catch up. Or if you’ve got ideas for places we should stop, we’re all ears. Reach us at info@opencampusmedia.org.
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We Need Your Help
Talking to people along this trip has only made us more certain that many stories about higher-ed go unreported and many cities could use more dedicated attention to the beat. We’re trying to build the infrastructure to help both of those problems. We need your help.
You can make a tax-deductible donation to Open Campus through the Institute for Nonprofit News (our fiscal sponsor). Thank you!
Keep the feedback coming! We love hearing your stories, tips, and ideas. You can reach us both at info@opencampusmedia.org.
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