When the pandemic began earlier this year, everyone hoped that life would return to normal soon. After a few months, states started to lift lockdowns and reopen. College towns waited for students to return and provide a much-needed boost to their economies, but now, some universities struggle to stay open safely.
People are still nervous and sometimes unable to spend money on anything other than groceries and gas. It begs the question — how are college town economies faring in COVID-19?
1. They're relying on rent.
On-campus housing is infamously expensive. Many college students live off-campus to find housing within their budget. Before going back to school, some signed leases ahead of time before other students could nab the available apartments. It would have been a smart move before the pandemic, but now, students want to end their leases and get their money back.
Landlords and community management teams decide if that's possible, but it's a critical component of improving the local economy. Students who legally have to finish the duration of their lease support nearby stores and small-businesses by buying food, clothes and anything else they might need during the school year.
It makes sense for students to want to live at home if their classes go virtual, but it keeps more money circulating in college towns if that's not possible. Still, cities won't make as much revenue as a standard semester because more students have the option to complete coursework online from their hometowns.
2. They're reimagining their food industry.
Restaurants suffered some of the most significant financial losses from the pandemic. In just six months, the pandemic shut down more than 100,000 restaurants, both big and small. Owners have become creative to avoid layoffs and still keep the lights on.
Adjusting hours and investing in delivery services are a few of the ways the food industry has adapted to challenging times. They also had to refine their in-house management styles. Staff reviewed helpful tips like how to store frozen food safely to make their stock last longer.
These efforts save much-needed room in the budget to help the food industries in college towns push through COVID-19 closures.
3. They're rethinking sports revenue.
Major athletic events, like football games, normally supercharge economies in college towns. Now, that source of revenue has nearly disappeared.
A recent survey found that cleaning and safety protocols would only draw in 15 percent more fans to in-person games. Although some universities allow limited attendance, many have moved to virtual fan features like live streams and exclusive digital post-game interviews.
Generating revenue from online ticket sales is one way to mitigate the school year's economic damage without traditional sports games. It's likely to hold through the spring until a vaccine is widely available for the general public.
4. They're depending on financial aid.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consistently updates its university guidelines for students to safely come back to campus. Even though it encourages mask-wearing and social distancing, students still create hotspots by gathering for parties and other events. It increases the importance of colleges paying for testing and contact tracing, which is an expensive undertaking.
Federal financial aid is the best way to make these essential preventive efforts happen without taking money away from local spending. Universities must pay to partner with local hospitals to ensure access to testing. When they can't get federal aid, the money comes from state and local budgets that would otherwise support the economy with more aid to small business owners.
5. They're waiting for a vaccine.
College towns aren't doing as well as they would during a typical school year. Fewer students, minimal sports events and reduced local spending take a major toll after months of struggling. The economy will stand on shaky ground until a vaccine makes it safe for everyone to gather again.