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Coronavirus Economic Impact: How COVID-19 Has Notably Affected College Town Economies

Co-Author: Michaela Sokol

COVID-19 has impacted cities, both big and small, across the U.S. Subsequently, the varying ways in which it has affected these cities also differs greatly. College towns are communities that are dominated by their university population. These towns, where student spending is a crucial part of their economies, have faced a unique predicament. At the onset of the virus, schools began to send students home and move classes online which significantly impacted the community as a whole. When compared to other US cities, for residents of college towns, and specifically among those of small college towns, the economic impact of COVID-19 is a more pressing issue.

Local governments have been the first line of government action in the fight against the virus. They are also the level of government most vulnerable to the fiscal impact of the virus and subsequent response, which is why it is imperative for these local leaders, particularly those of small college towns, to know where their residents’ concerns lay, in order to prioritize their response and budgetary efforts. 

Zencity analyzed the discourse of over 91 million interactions across our 130+ partner cities to assess the level of concern facing college towns as it relates to economic impact in the wake of the pandemic. The share of the overall discourse, which is an automatic collection of millions of resident and city-generated data points from a multitude of public online sources, is an indicator of the level of interest and concern. A comparison between the average share of discourse is an indication of the relative level of interest. 

College Town Residents are Concerned for Their Local Economy

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  • Of the 16 college towns examined, the average share of total discourse related to the local economy is 16% higher compared to the general average of Zencities, the average share of discourse about employment is 37% higher, and the average share of discourse about rent and fees is 40% higher.
  • While the majority of cities have faced economic turmoil as a result of coronavirus, this data indicates that college towns have in fact been hit harder as it relates to unemployment, landlord fees and the economic impact as a whole. 
  • Another concern facing townspeople isn’t just the current economic impact but the long term effects they may have. As of now, many colleges are unsure of what will happen come Fall semester, playing an important role in the high amount of discourse surrounding the local economy. 
  • Many universities and colleges were forced to cancel graduation ceremonies, which college towns rely on heavily for income. Local hotels, restaurants, shops etc. obtain a significant share of annual revenue from graduation week and with these major events being canceled, their businesses are at risk of suffering greatly.  

Unemployment Hits Small College Towns

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In small college towns, college towns with a population under 100k, the average share of total discourse related to the local economy is 19% higher compared to the general average of smaller Zencities, cities with a population under 100k. The average share of discourse about employment is 83% higher, and the average share of discourse about rent and fees is 50% higher.

  • As the New York Times put it “This Is Going to Kill Small-Town America.” While small towns across the country have suffered economically, small college towns have suffered more so. 
  • Compared to towns and cities with populations of more than 100k, the discourse surrounding the local economy, including employment and rent and housing fees, was higher in smaller towns. This indicates the vulnerable positions small towns and small college towns are in. 

With local economies and businesses taking the brunt of COVID-19’s impact, there is a clear need for local governments to prioritize resources accordingly as the country moves forward in its fight. Small college towns have experienced the worst of it, with discourse indicating a strong concern around rent, employment and financial support from state and federal governments. The data above clearly indicates the impact on the local economy and related topics are stronger concerns for college town locals compared to non college towns. We hope the breakdown will enable local leaders as they move forward in rebuilding their economies.  

Zencity is here to help in all of your COVID-19 efforts. For more information on how we are aiding our 130+ partner cities through the pandemic with real-time public discourse data and communications tools, refer to our COVID-19 Action Plan

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