Central Place Theory

Remember when destination weddings were a thing? When prima donna brides just told everyone they had to fly to Barbados or Denali if they wanted to participate in the wedding? Yeah, I’m glad that’s over, too.

But I’ve now seen a state regional comprehensive college, a school designed specifically to serve students from a particular catchment area, publicly state its desire to become “a destination university.” Well, aside from out-of-state tuition being more than double the in-state rate, I’m wondering why they’d want that. (Cynically, I suppose that IS why they want that.) I’m also wondering what they think they’d be offering as the lure for those destination students.

Back about 80 years ago, a German cultural geographer named Walter Christaller developed a theoretical system of habitation scales that he called Central Place Theory. The fundamental point was that it took a specific scale of population to be able to offer specific kinds of services, so towns of smaller size would be served by one central place of larger size, those places themselves being served in some number by a city of even larger size, and so on. Here’s an example:

  • My town, Middletown Springs (pop. ~725), has a post office, general store, church, and takeout restaurant. If you want to buy gas or go to a full grocery store or get your hair cut, you’d drive to…
  • Poultney (pop. ~3,000). But if you lived in Poultney and wanted to go to a movie or a Home Depot or buy a new car, you’d drive to…
  • Rutland (pop. ~16,000). But if you lived in Rutland and wanted to go to an elite restaurant or see a major performer live or go to a nationally connected airport, you’d drive to…
  • Burlington (pop. 35,000). But if you lived in Burlington and wanted to go to a world-class symphony or a major-league baseball game or an international caliber hospital, you’d go to…
  • Boston (pop. ~700,000).

Public higher education has long been organized in a sort of central-place-theory model, in which the dozen scattered campuses of the Community College of Vermont serve the smallest regions, the four baccalaureate (and increasingly master’s) Vermont State Colleges serve the State’s more advanced educational needs, and the singular University of Vermont is the research university with the med school and the doctoral programs.

This model is the norm around the country. Michigan has 28 community colleges, a dozen regional colleges (sometimes called “directional schools”—Eastern, Western, Northern, Central, etc.), and three research flagships. California has 114 community colleges, 23 Cal State master’s level schools, and ten University of California system research schools.

And I honestly have no idea why anyone would travel to any of those middle tier of schools. Why on earth would anybody from (say) Minnesota want to go to college at (say) West Texas A&M? One reason: for over a decade, West Texas had one of America’s elite college bowling programs. So that’s a good reason for, like, 15 people to go there. Everybody else, not so much.

And that’s not to say that West Texas or its compatriots are bad schools, of course not. But destinations? Why? On what grounds? When I lived in far northern California years ago, kids came from away to go to Humboldt State because it was a beautiful landscape in a very specific way (green, foggy, rainy oceanfront), and because high quality marijuana was vastly, easily available. Now that recreational pot is legal in California, I predict a substantial enrollment decline at HSU. It’s a good school, but why go there and not Chico State or Fresno State, much less come in from far away and pay double rate?

All this reminds me of something Nora’s knee surgeon said to us a couple of years ago. “I do four hundred of these a year, I’m really good at it. But there are a thousand people in America who are really good at it. I appreciate it when people make referrals to me, but there’s no sense in driving past another hospital to get to this one.” So why would anybody drive past dozens, or hundreds, of other state schools to get to yours?