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3 views on the life and death of college towns, remote work and the future of startup hubs

Aerial over the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the spring.

The global pandemic has halted travel, shunted schools online and shut down many cities, but the future of college-town America is an area of deep concern for the startup world.

College towns have done exceedingly well with the rise of the knowledge economy and concentrating students and talent in dense social webs. That confluence of ideas and skill fueled the rise of a whole set of startup clusters outside major geos like the Bay Area, but with COVID-19 bearing down on these ecosystems and many tech workers considering remote work, what does the future look like for these cradles of innovation?

We have three angles on this topic from the Equity podcast crew:

  • Danny Crichton sees the death of college towns, and looks at whether remote tools can substitute for in-person connections when building a startup.
  • Natasha Mascarenhas believes connecting with other students is critical for developing one’s sense of self, and the decline of colleges will negatively impact students and their ability to trial and error their way to their first job.
  • Alex Wilhelm looks at whether residential colleges are about to be disrupted — or whether tradition will prevail. His is (surprise!) a more sanguine look at the future of college towns.

Startup hubs are going to disintegrate as college towns are decimated by coronavirus

Danny Crichton: One of the few urban success stories outside the big global cities like New York, Tokyo, Paris and London has been a small set of cities that have used a mix of their proximity to power (state capitals), knowledge (universities) and finance (local big companies) to build innovative economies. That includes places like Austin, Columbus, Chattanooga, Ann Arbor, Urbana, Denver, Atlanta and Minneapolis, among many others.

Over the past two decades, there was an almost magical economic alchemy underway in these locales. Universities attracted large numbers of bright and ambitious students, capitals and state government offices offered a financial base to the regional economy and local big companies offered the jobs and stability that allow innovation to flourish.

All that has disappeared, leading to some critics, like Noah Smith, to ask whether “Coronavirus Will End the Golden Age for College Towns”?

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