Not long ago, I found myself at UMass Boston. I hadn’t been on the campus in a while. The place was jumping, a youthful stampede in every direction. The student center was wall-to-wall, the library stairwells packed like a rock show, the outdoor plazas animated by music, laughter, and conversation.
The campus felt, in a word, alive. And the diversity — of language, age, color, and ethnicity — was something to behold. I later learned that UMass Boston’s enrollment has jumped 44 percent over the past decade.
Now, some might encounter such a bustling scene and think Ick. Kim Costa of Medford drew attention recently with a profane rant against Boston’s college set, her scorn seemingly aimed at the tweedier private schools. “Nobody likes you,” she asserted in a video posted to Facebook. “You’re a visitor here, an interloper.”
Town-gown hostilities are nothing new, of course, and Costa was surely speaking for many others. But the casual dismissal of Joe and Jo College is more than a little myopic. Boston does want its students. Badly. In fact, the city we know and love simply would not exist without them.
The many colleges and universities in our midst — there are about 60 within or close to the I-95 belt alone — make Boston what it is: a desirable place to live, work, and play. And desirability itself has a kind of luster. People want to be where people want to be.
That’s not the case in many other pockets of the country, especially where corporations have folded or moved jobs overseas. I don’t see Harvard suddenly closing up shop and relocating to Guangzhou.
No, we have it good. The cluster of higher ed institutions keeps home values up and supports tens of thousands of jobs. They attract talent, grant dollars, government spending, the arts, high-end medicine, and industry. Surely you’ve noticed the explosion of biotech companies near Kendall Square? They’re not here for the weather.
Let’s look specifically at students. As of 2013, more than 230,000 of them attended those 60 or so schools, according to the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts. The economic impact of that annual invasion is startling. They spend gobs of money — on U-Hauls, dorms, and apartments; on burritos; on textbooks and paintbrushes; on IKEA dressers, and then on Band-Aids when, in hour six of assembly, things go awry.
Yes, some may say, but they urinate on my lawn! Sorry about your grass, but at least someone bought all that beer. That keeps the corner store clerk, the brawny beer truck delivery guy, and, if it’s Harpoon or Sam Adams, local brew-masters gainfully employed. Most cities would kill for that kind of spending power. It’s like having a massive convention in town every single day of the academic calendar, year after year after year. One 2012 study put the annual economic impact of area colleges at more than $31 billion — about equal to the GDP of Bolivia and twice that of Cambodia.
How about culture? Our access to world-class museums, theater, music, lectures, religious education — I could go on — is no coincidence. Where but the MIT Museum could your kid play Tetris on a mock-up of a campus high-rise within an elaborate model-train layout? Where else could you get hours of stellar noncommercial radio from the likes of Boston College and UMass-Boston?
On a more serious note, ask yourself: If you or your child were seriously ill, is there really anywhere else in the world you’d rather be than Boston, with its concentration of top-rated teaching hospitals? I can’t think of one.
Beyond the many direct benefits to us, as Greater Boston residents, let’s recognize, too, the countless ways in which former students in our fair city have changed the wider world. Like founding eBay, say, or helping kids fight chronic illnesses, or launching an environmental cleanup company that employs thousands. (You’ll recall that Kim Costa’s medium of choice, Facebook, began in a Harvard dorm room.)
Now, I don’t mean to dismiss entirely the complaints about cohabiting with undergrads. I’ll even add a few: Driving near Harvard Square can poison a man’s soul; pretentious thesis discussions on the T make me want to retch; the relentless demand for housing is pricing families out of gentrified neighborhoods.
On balance, though, it’s no contest: For all the headaches, Greater Boston enjoys an excellent, enduring return on hosting its many colleges and universities.
So go catch a free set by a hard-blowing jazz combo or neo-soul outfit from Berklee College of Music. Go chat up a Northeastern student who’s ready to tackle the world after months in the school’s visionary co-op program. Go watch the latest film or TV show hatched by an Emerson alum.
Oh, and I just noticed that the MIT Media Lab invited engineers, parents, and others to an event called the “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon.” I mean, really, where else are you gonna find that?
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