Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Covering the business aspect of college reopenings

April 2, 2021

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Here's how to localize this week's business stories.

Many colleges have opted to fully reopen this year. Whether you’d personally brave studying in-person or would rather stay home, reopenings of large colleges and universities will have serious economic impacts that you can mine for future stories. 

The business of higher education

Colleges and universities have lost millions and even billion of dollars after schools shut down as a result of the pandemic. Now many centers of higher learning have plans to fully reopen this year. But after losing so much money, can colleges and universities remain solvent?   

Impact on college towns

When universities across the country shut down, the once vibrant surrounding business centers turned to literal ghost towns. Students moved home, leaving surrounding bars, restaurants, gyms, apartments and hotels to reduce their staff or close entirely. Now, many colleges have reopened or are planning to reopen for fall semester. Businesses should expect a boost with more students, but there is no way of knowing how many will actually return to in-person instruction.   

Low-income students abandon higher education

When universities closed abruptly last year, some students left and never returned, especially lower income students. Statistics show that fewer students are applying for financial aid, and less high school seniors are submitting FAFSA forms. A study done by the Community College Research Center predicted that this trend will widen equity gaps and perpetuate income inequality. If the trend continues, it will lower enrollment in institutions of higher learning, particularly community colleges.

Tips for reporters:

Keeping up to date on college reopenings will yield plenty of ideas for business stories. Here are some ways you can get ahead of it:

Ask students and faculty how they feel about reopenings. Are they planning on returning this year, or are they likely to stay home?

Colleges and universities have reopened and closed several times in the last year after upticks in COVID cases on campus. Keep track of changing university policies by following sites like Inside Higher ED, which keeps a close eye on developments in centers of higher learning. 

When reporting on college towns, try to assess the damage. Find out how many businesses are still holding on, and how many have permanently closed. Which businesses are doing better than others, and why? What are some ways businesses have changed the way they operate to make ends meet? Find out what their plans for the future are. Are they banking on an influx of students to save their business, or are they financially prepared to deal with another slow semester?  

If you don’t live close to a college town, you probably know of businesses in your area that depend on the patronage of college students, like textbook resale stores or independent tutoring centers. Find out how they’re doing and whether or not they’ve needed to modify their business strategies.

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