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The economies of college towns will be heavily impacted by the effects of COVID-19, as fewer students, faculty and loved ones return to campus.

Though efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus across the U.S. have squeezed many local economies and the bank accounts of their residents, college towns are among the most vulnerable. They are confronting potentially major losses in population and revenue if students do not return to campus. Even in towns where schools have decided to allow students back in the fall, there may continue to be dampened demand for typical collegiate expenditures such as eating out and attending sports games.

In this study, SmartAsset uncovered places that are most dependent on the presence and spending habits of undergraduate populations. We compared 95 college towns with populations of 50,000 or more across six metrics. We looked at students as a percentage of the population, college staff as a percentage of workers, as well as four other metrics focused on local businesses’ reliance on college student and parent/guardian spending – concentration of restaurants & bars, entertainment establishments, bookstores and hotels. For details on our data sources and how we put all the information together to create our final rankings, check out the Data and Methodology section below.

Key Findings

  • Many Midwestern and Southern college towns are at the top of our list. Of the top 11 most vulnerable college towns in our study, four are in the Midwest and five are in the South. The Midwestern cities are Bloomington, Indiana; Champaign, Illinois; Ann Arbor, Michigan and Ames, Iowa. The following cities represent the Southern states: College Station, Texas; Athens, Georgia; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; San Marcos, Texas and Auburn, Alabama.
  • Small college towns are likely to be hit the hardest. Beyond their geographic focus in the Midwest and South, the 11 college towns we identified as being most vulnerable during COVID-19 all have city populations of less than 125,000. In those towns, students and staff make up larger percentages of the population and workforce. More than two in 10 residents are undergraduate students in all 11 towns. Additionally, in all but one of the 11 (Flagstaff, Arizona), more than one in 10 workers are employed by local four-year institutions.

 1. Bloomington, IN (Indiana University Bloomington)

Bloomington, Indiana ranks as the college town most vulnerable during COVID-19. More than one in three residents is an undergraduate student at the city’s only four-year institution – Indiana University Bloomington. Additionally, close to one in four workers in the city is affiliated with the university. Beyond its high percentages of students relative to the city population and college staff relative to all workers, Bloomington ranks in the worst third of cities for three of the other four metrics we considered. The greater county of Monroe has the eighth-highest concentration of restaurants and bars, third-highest concentration of bookstores and 33rd-highest concentration of hotels.

2. College Station, TX (Texas A&M University)

College Station, Texas has the second-largest college population in our study. In 2018, more than 44% of the city’s population was made up of undergraduates at Texas A&M University, according to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the Census Bureau. Additionally, data shows that the town’s economy relies heavily on local restaurants and bars. The area has the 12th-highest concentration of restaurants and bars, at 9.27%, in our study.

3. Champaign, IL (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Though the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers a plethora of online degrees, certificates and courses, many students exclusively take in-person classes. Data from IPEDS shows that during the 2018 school year, close to 21,900 undergraduates were taking exclusively in-person courses at the university. As a result, students make up more than 25% of the city’s population. Champaign may additionally be more vulnerable than other college towns during COVID-19 as it has the highest concentration of restaurants and bars in our study, at 11.26%.

4. Athens, GA (University of Georgia)

The University of Georgia’s main campus is located about 70 miles northeast of Atlanta in Athens, Georgia. Undergraduate students make up roughly one-fifth of the city’s population, and the area has a high concentration of establishments frequented by college students (i.e. restaurants & bars, entertainment establishments and bookstores). Data from the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns Survey shows that more than 10% of all establishments in Clarke County are restaurants and bars. Additionally, 2.17% and 0.20% of establishments are entertainment establishments and bookstores, respectively.

5. Flagstaff, AZ (Northern Arizona University)

In 2018, more than 31,000 undergraduates were enrolled at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. Of those, about 16,000 students were enrolled in only in-person classes. Thus, we found that college students taking in-person courses make up 22.45% of the Flagstaff city population.

Northern Arizona University has announced it will resume in-person classes in the fall, but fewer parents and friends visiting the campus may affect the hotel industry. Flagstaff has the highest concentration of hotels in our study. Close to one in 25 establishments in the area is a hotel or motel.

6. Davis, CA (University of California, Davis)

Davis, California is home to the University of California, Davis – the third largest school within the University of California system, following the Los Angeles and Berkeley campuses. IPEDS data shows that most of the university’s 38,000-plus undergraduates take in-person classes. In 2018, about 29,200 undergraduates exclusively took in-person classes and made up close to 43% of the city’s population – the third-highest percentage in our study.

The city of Davis is even more vulnerable to the negative effects of COVID-19 due to its high concentration of restaurants, bars and hotels, as the local economy relies on revenue brought in by college students and their visitors. Specifically, more than 9% of establishments are restaurants or bars, and about 1% are hotels or motels.

7. Ann Arbor, MI (University of Michigan)

Though the University of Michigan is the largest four-year university in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the city is also home to Concordia University, Ann Arbor – a satellite campus of Concordia University, Wisconsin. Between the two universities, undergraduate students make up almost 26% of the city population – the 16th-highest percentage in our study. Additionally, Ann Arbor has the sixth-highest rate of college staff as a percentage of workers; more than one in three full-time workers is employed by either of the local universities.

8. Chapel Hill, NC (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Chapel Hill is part of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, along with the cities of Raleigh and Durham. The undergraduate population in Chapel Hill is significant: More than 28% of city residents are undergraduate students taking in-person courses at the university. Additionally, the employment of many workers in the city is tied to the university. Almost 45% of full-time workers in the city are college staff, including faculty, research assistants and other staff.

9. San Marcos, TX (Texas State University)

San Marcos, Texas ranks in the worst fourth of college towns in terms of vulnerability during COVID-19 for four of the six metrics we considered. It has the fourth-highest student population relative to the city’s population, 23rd-highest concentration of entertainment establishments, 13th-highest concentration of bookstores and 18th-highest concentration of hotels.

10. Ames, IA (Iowa State University) (tie)

Iowa’s largest state university is in Ames, Iowa – a city in Story County and located about 30 miles north of Des Moines. Ames may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 and its effects than other college towns, as students make up more than 35% of the city’s population. Additionally, close to one in five workers in the area is employed by the university. Regarding the local economy, more than one in 10 establishments are restaurants and bars or entertainment establishments.

10. Auburn, AL (Auburn University) (tie)

Auburn, Alabama ties with Ames, Iowa as the 10th most vulnerable college town during COVID-19. Auburn has the eighth-highest percentage of students relative to the population (30.36%) and 15th-highest percentage of college staff relative to workers (19.26%). Additionally, it ranks in the worst fifth of college towns for its concentration of restaurants and bars and concentration of hotels.

Data and Methodology

To find the college towns that are most vulnerable during COVID-19, SmartAsset pulled data for all U.S. cities with a population of at least 50,000 and at least one four-year college or university. We then looked at the total number of undergraduate students enrolled in local schools and taking in-person classes and compared that figure to the city population.

We found the towns where students made up more than 10% of the population, removing all other cities and towns from our list. This left us with a total of 95 college towns, which we compared across six metrics:

  • Students as a percentage of population. This is the number of undergraduates taking in-person classes at all four-year colleges and universities in the city divided by the city’s total population. Undergraduate enrollment figures come from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and are for 2018. City population figures come from the Census Bureau’s 2018 5-year American Community Survey.
  • College staff as a percentage of workers. This is full-time and equivalent staff at all four-year colleges and universities in the city divided by all full-time workers in the city. Employed staff figures come from IPEDS and are for 2018. Data on full-time workers in the city comes from the Census Bureau’s 2018 5-year American Community Survey.
  • Concentration of restaurants and bars. This is the number of restaurants and bars as a percentage of all establishments. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2017 County Business Patterns Survey.
  • Concentration of entertainment establishments. This is the number of arts, entertainment and recreation establishments as a percentage of all establishments. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2017 County Business Patterns Survey.
  • Concentration of bookstores. This is the number of bookstores as a percentage of all establishments. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2017 County Business Patterns Survey.
  • Concentration of hotels. This is the number of hotels and motels as a percentage of all establishments. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2017 County Business Patterns Survey.

We ranked each city in every metric, double-weighting students as a percentage of population and college staff as a percentage of workers and giving a full weight to all four other metrics. We then found each city’s average ranking and used this average to determine a final score. The city with the highest average ranking received a score of 100. The city with the lowest average ranking received a score of 0.

Tips for Managing Your Student Loans

  • Know your options during COVID-19. Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, federal student loans are in forbearance and do not have to be paid until September 30, 2020. This means that you won’t have to pay anything until that date, nor will any interest accrue until then. For more information, see our guide to coronavirus student relief here.
  • Trusted personal finance advice. A financial advisor can help you make smarter financial decisions such as moving or being in better control of your money as you navigate finding a new job or helping a loved one pay for educational costs. Finding the right financial advisor that fits your needs doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in five minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that will help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

Questions about our study? Contact us at press@smartasset.com

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/kzenon

Stephanie Horan, CEPF® Stephanie Horan is a data journalist at SmartAsset. A Certified Educator of Personal Finance (CEPF®), she sources and analyzes data to write studies relating to a variety of topics including mortgage, retirement and budgeting. Before coming to SmartAsset, she worked as an analyst at an asset management firm. Stephanie graduated from Williams College with a degree in Mathematics. Originally from Philadelphia, she has always been a Yankees fan and currently lives in New York.
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