As business journalists continue to cover the present and future impact that COVID-19 is having on colleges and universities, they should not hesitate to take a deeper look at how the surrounding communities are faring.
College towns, or town and gown communities as they are sometimes referred to, were once thought to be resistant to recession as their unemployment rates did not take the same impact as other cities during times of great economic strife. This most certainly had to do with the fact that institutions of higher education were still running normally. This means that thousands of people, students and employees, would move to these communities every year and flood local economies with their disposable income.
Areas that benefited from this included restaurants and bars, theaters and grocery stores, rental properties and even hotels that would often be booked weeks in advance for events such as major university sporting events, parents weekends and graduation ceremonies.
Another plus is the real estate impact that universities can bring to their communities. When these institutions break ground and construct new buildings, whether on residence halls or academic buildings, it can stimulate redevelopment of the surrounding area boosting the local economy.
An example of this would be the new residence hall that Arizona State University is building in downtown Phoenix, set to be opened in the fall of 2021. In March of 2020, there were over 25 construction projects either underway or planned. Not to mention that the downtown population had doubled within five years.
However, the idea of college towns being recession proof has faltered in the midst of this pandemic and its subsequent economic downturn. The nature of the pandemic has made it so a significant portion of a university’s student body are not returning to campus, meaning there is less demand for local businesses. Even for those students who do return to campus, there is concern about spread of the virus so they aren’t frequenting those businesses as much while those businesses aren’t operating at full capacity either.
When business journalists analyze how the college towns they cover will fare post pandemic, they should focus on the local businesses whose demand mainly comes from the college community. They should also dig deep and examine if there were any development projects connected with the university that were planned for and what those projects’ are.
The stories that businesses journalists write do not have to be all negative, however. There is some optimism to be focused on. For example, there are some findings that as people feel the individual financial strain, they are starting to move away from the big cities to places that are more manageable and less expensive, with some of these places being college towns.
Business journalists should keep an eye out for panel discussions and events that happen on college campuses focused on future development. One such discussion at Cornell University brought together representatives from college towns with leaders in innovation and economic development. Business journalists can cover these events to find sources and highlight solutions emanating from universities that could be beneficial to their nearby communities.