College Towns That Are Most Vulnerable During the Pandemic

Though efforts to slow the spread of the 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.

To find the college towns that are most vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic, 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 with the city population.

We found the towns where students made up more than 10% of the population and removed 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 the 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.
  • 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.
  • Concentration of restaurants and bars. This is the number of restaurants and bars as a percentage of all establishments.
  • Concentration of entertainment establishments. This is the number of arts, entertainment and recreation establishments as a percentage of all establishments.
  • Concentration of bookstores. This is the number of bookstores as a percentage of all establishments.
  • Concentration of hotels. This is the number of hotels and motels as a percentage of all establishments.

Data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 five-year American Community Survey and 2017 County Business Patterns Survey and from 2018 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data.

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 zero.

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

Iowa’s largest state university is in Ames — a city in Story County located about 30 miles north of Des Moines, the state capital.

Ames may be more vulnerable to the coronavirus and its effects than other college towns, as students make up more than 35% of the city’s population. Additionally, close to 1 in 5 workers in the area are employed by the university.

Regarding the local economy, more than 1 in 10 establishments are restaurants and bars or entertainment establishments.

10. Auburn, Alabama (Auburn University) — tie

Auburn, Alabama, ties with Ames, Iowa, as the 10th most vulnerable college town during the pandemic.

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.

9. San Marcos, Texas (Texas State University)

San Marcos, Texas, ranks in the worst fourth of college towns in terms of vulnerability during COVID-19 pandemic on 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.

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

Chapel Hill is located within North Carolina’s Research Triangle area, 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.

7. Ann Arbor, Michigan (University of Michigan)

Though the University of Michigan is the largest four-year university in Ann Arbor, the city is also home to Concordia University, Ann Arbor — a satellite campus of Concordia University Wisconsin, a private Lutheran university.

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.

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

Davis 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 the COVID-19 pandemic 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.

5. Flagstaff, Arizona (Northern Arizona University)

In 2018, more than 31,000 undergraduates were enrolled at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. About 16,000 of those students were enrolled in only in-person classes. Comparing that figure with the total of all residents, that segment of students makes up 22.45% of the Flagstaff city population.

Northern Arizona University has announced it will resume in-person classes in the fall, but if fewer parents and friends visit the campus, that may affect the local hotel industry. Flagstaff has the highest concentration of hotels in our study. Close to 1 in 25 establishments in the area are hotels or motels.

4. Athens, Georgia (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 and 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.

3. Champaign, Illinois (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. That segment of students makes up more than 25% of the city’s population.

Champaign may additionally be more vulnerable than other college towns during the COVID-19 pandemic as it has the highest concentration of restaurants and bars in our study, at 11.26%.

2. College Station, Texas (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 U.S. 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.

1. Bloomington, Indiana (Indiana University Bloomington)

Bloomington, Indiana, ranks as the college town most vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 1 in 3 residents are undergraduate students at the city’s only four-year institution, Indiana University Bloomington. Additionally, close to 1 in 4 workers in the city are 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.

Monroe County, of which Bloomington is the county seat, has the eighth-highest concentration of restaurants and bars, third-highest concentration of bookstores and 33rd-highest concentration of hotels in the analysis.

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