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Grinnell’s Location

Topics/tags: Grinnell, marketing, geography

For as long as I can recall, Grinnell has discussed how we can recruit more students. It’s not that we don’t get a lot of applications. We do. It’s not like we don’t get excellent students. We do. But there’s always the feeling that we could be doing better. When I first started at Grinnell, we had a number of trustees who did not seem to consider Grinnell a great institution. From what I could tell, their rationale was that if Grinnell was really all that great, we’d get more students who wanted to pay the full cost of attending. I’ve always been proud that we’re able to provide a top-notch liberal arts education to a group of students who might not otherwise be able to afford such an education.

Nonetheless, we talk regularly about increasing the size of the applicant pool and how we achieve that goal. In most of those conversations [1], I raised the question of our location [2]. For the first fifteen or of my career at Grinnell, I kept getting told that our location isn’t the issue.

More recently, the understanding seems to have shifted. Now, we are told Prospective students know that Grinnell has an excellent academic program; students who choose not to attend (or to apply) regularly rank Grinnell’s academic program at or near the top of their list of comparison schools. Other factors therefore affect their decisions, and our location is a key factor.

Surveys and studies provide one indication that our location is an issue. But we have other indicators. For example, we get about half the number of students who visit campus as do Macalester and Carleton, both similar institutions. (I believe Carleton and Grinnell were much closer on the U.S. News and World Report survey when I started at Grinnell.) In part, it’s that those two institutions are close to (or in) an interesting city [3]. But it’s also that if you’re visiting one of those two schools, it’s convenient to visit the other. In contrast, there is no top-notch liberal arts college near Grinnell. For top-twenty, those two are actually the closest, and they are more than four hours away. Luther is almost certainly the second-best liberal arts college in Iowa, and it’s both a step down in the rankings and still a few hours away.

Visits do matter. I hear from a lot of students that their visit is what convinced them to come to Grinnell; they saw just how wonderful many aspects of the campus are, from the classes they attend to the people they meet. I also know that there are a lot of students whose visits convince them not to come to Grinnell. In many of the latter cases, location seems to be the issue.

So, what’s wrong with our location? I asked admissions that question and they noted that they had not asked questions that let them unpack the survey response in which they indicated that the location was a significant factor in why they chose not to attend (or apply to) Grinnell. I hear that they’re planning to investigate that issue in more depth this year [4].

I would hypothesize that there are a variety of things about our location that deter students from choosing to attend Grinnell and that different students will identify different issues. Here are a few.

  • Students may worry about the lack of affinities associated with cites. These include a wide variety of places to eat, nightclubs or other entertainment venues, places to shop, and museums and other public resources.

  • Some students may be reluctant to be in a place that lacks the cultural diversity that often comes with a city. Grinnell College is quite diverse. Our students come from around the globe and international students make up 20% of the student body [6]. Domestic students of color make up around 25% of the student body. But most cities provide diversity beyond the institution. It can be empowering to know that there’s a community of people outside the institution who share some of your cultural identity.

  • Distance to the airport. It takes an hour to get to Des Moines International or Cedar Rapids. I spent more than a decade living in Chicago. An hour to the airport doesn’t seem long to me. On some days, an hour to O’Hare is quick. But it was possible to get cab rides, or take public transportation, or Uber/Lyft or …. In Iowa? It’s different. DSM and CID are nearly sixty miles from campus. Cabs are really expensive, and are also hard to get. There’s no public transportation. The College does run some shuttles at high-demand times, such as the end of the semester or the start of break, but even those are at limited times that don’t work for everyone. And the shuttles don’t help when you want to leave at a non-high-demand time. So somewhere in the back of some people’s minds is the question of How do I get out of here when I want to leave? I see similar questions regularly pop up on the parents’ Facebook page. I expect that the airport is less of an issue. However, it may be that the distance to the airport when people visit reinforces the sense of isolation that some may worry about.

  • The weather. It’s cold and snowy in winter. It’s been known to snow as early as October and as late as May. Summers can be hot. And it’s a humid heat. Some students will want to avoid that weather.

It’s not all bad. Our location has many strengths. I will admit that I experience more of them as an adult and as a parent, such as the ability to attend my kids’ events and the willingness of the school system and the community to support students who want to do a wide variety of extra-curricular activities. Nonetheless, there are many aspects of our location that students might also appreciate.

  • It’s quiet. I don’t realize quite how much I value the quiet until I go to a large city again. But you can easily get to places in Grinnell where there is little or no traffic and certainly no crowds. I hear from many of our students that they appreciate the peace and quiet and sometimes have trouble adapting back to larger cities.

  • Students stay on campus. When it’s easier to get away, students go away on weekends. It’s harder here, so people leave less often. That means that our students can build a strong community on campus.

  • You can see the stars at night.

  • You are not anonymous. Students will see each other and their faculty members in town as well as on campus. People will know who they are. Those who attend religious services or who participate in activities in town will find that they have a broader and different community than just the College. Of course, the lack of anonymity may also bother some students.

  • Fresh sweet corn available just hours after it has been picked [7].

Others will likely identify other potential concerns and other benefits.

I’m not sure that we can change the minds of those who worry about, say, winter in Iowa. But for others, we can emphasize some of the strengths, while still acknowledging that it’s not all bread and roses [8]

[1] Or at least the conversations to which I was invited.

[2] I grew up on the east coast. I know the general coastal attitude toward the midwest in general and the rural midwest in particular. I’m pretty sure that none of the guidance counselors at my school suggested that people consider Grinnell, even when they wanted small liberal arts colleges. Hey, in my graduating class of 1000+ students, I was the only one who even applied to the University of Chicago. And we were a really strong school.

[3] Or, more precisely, an interesting pair of cities.

[4] Thanks admissions folks! I appreciate your willingness to consider these kinds of questions. I’m glad that we can work together to make Grinnell a better institution [5].

[5] That reminds me. I need to muse about supporting our admissions office.

[6] Our international students also represent a wide range of economic backgrounds.

[7] That only holds in late summer / early fall.

[8] Or sweet corn and night stars.

Version 1.0 of 2018-05-12.