The University of Maryland. Photo by Mambo’Dan on Flickr.

Education is moving online, leading some to say that the college campus isn’t necessary anymore. But campuses allow students to learn and grow in a physical place, something that can’t be replicated virtually.

Writing in the Atlantic Cities, Anthony Flint asked if college campuses could become obsolete like bookstores due to the rise of online universities and massive open online courses (MOOCs). The Wall Street Journal piece he responded to predicted a future where students could learn anywhere, resulting in the demise of the traditional model of professorial learning.

What does that mean for the college as a place, not just a web address? In an attempt to slow rising tuition costs, universities have streamlined degrees or certificate programs, but some experts suggest colleges rid themselves of fancy dorms, fancy food, and amenities like fitness centers. Many colleges have done just that, by contracting out these auxiliary services and requiring students to pay more in fees or opt out of using them.

But what happens to the college experience when it becomes sanitized and streamlined? The campus experience draws its power from the intangible experiences that many students find have the most impact on their lives. Students seek out the places that encourage interactions with others. Many students learn most when discussing the issues of the day over coffee, at the library, or on the walk to class.

While online learning and social media have an important place in the academy, a brick-and-mortar campus can foster the kind of interaction to enhance a lifetime of learning. Although we have already written the eulogy for the bookstore, in some cities like the District, the bookstore is still alive and well. It is a hub of activity and interaction. Meanwhile, students continue to buy physical books, despite the years of predicting the demise of textbooks.


The Rathskeller at the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Union. Photo by Alan Wolf on Flickr.


Some DC-area universities are actually investing in their communities as a way to heighten the student experience while raising money. But the District’s campus planning process fosters antagonism between the campuses and the neighborhoods, preventing the kind of openness that a true college town requires.

In Ward 3, American University should be a neighborhood amenity but is often the target of neighborhood attack. This process creates an environment that makes the campus ever more insular when it could have a more open relationship with the community. If a school can’t be a part of its surroundings, it’s easier to make an argument for not having a physical campus.

It is possible that I am biased. I attended the University of Wisconsin and always had an affinity to spaces like the Memorial Union, where a student could study, attend a meeting, and have a beer all in the same building. It was also a campus that interacted with the residents of the city, providing cultural events, education, employment, and meaningful spaces for people to interact.

I went to class, but I learned about myself and the larger world outside the university gates as well. That’s something that students taking a class online won’t have the opportunity to do.

Abigail Zenner, is a former lobbyist turned communications specialist. She specializes in taking technical urban planning jargon and turning it into readable blog posts. When she’s not nerding out about urban planning, transportation, and American History, you may find her teaching a fitness class. Her blog posts represent her personal views only.