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Can college towns survive coronavirus?

When college students return to campuses in the fall, things may look a bit different than they remember. Maybe their favorite coffee shop in town will no longer be available for late-night study sessions, or perhaps there will be fewer on-campus events, out of an abundance of caution to curb the spread of coronavirus. Two months into the coronavirus crisis in the United States, colleges and universities are already experiencing a version of their likely fate come fall, if students choose not to or are unable to return to campus. It's hard to know exactly how college towns will survive coronavirus, but it's safe to say it isn't a matter of whether local economies will be changed, but how.

Colleges located in rural areas will fare differently than those located in urban areas, says Brett Theodos of the Urban Institute. Private and public colleges are some of the largest employers of those who reside in college towns, providing stability and job opportunities in places where there may be just a handful of industries to choose from. In small and midsize towns, Theodos says, "universities are absolutely essential" for employment and the "life blood" of the local economy.

Theodos tells Mic that small businesses, like restaurants, coffee shops, book stores, and hair salons — all of which commonly serve students — usually have a financial "cushion" of about 15 days before things get sticky. "Retail and food were absolutely first hit" by coronavirus shutdowns, he says, and "many of those businesses will not survive."

"It's a good time for Blackboard, [but] a bad time for the sandwich shop on the corner."

The businesses that will persevere are those that sell goods that don't require a brick-and-mortar storefront, like Blackboard, a tool used by universities to post grades, list assignments, and enable students to communicate with classmates and professors. Online portals will be crucial to education with fewer ways to connect in person. As Theodos says, "It's a good time for Blackboard, [but] a bad time for the sandwich shop on the corner."

That "bad time" will likely continue through the summer and into the fall, given the fact that many states have either extended their shelter-in-place orders or seen spiking numbers of coronavirus cases due to overeager reopening plans. Even President Trump has put his "reopening America" plan on the backburner, after many weeks of pushing for increased commercial economic activity.

The economic impact for college towns won't be the same across the board, Theodos says, as institutions with larger endowments — oftentimes millions of dollars tucked away in a rainy day fund — will be more resilient in weathering coronavirus. Those schools may have also used their endowments to help pay employees while classes have moved online. The truth is that it's mostly the "prestigious" universities that will have the wiggle room provided by an endowment to weather empty campuses, with most other colleges and universities in a "different boat," Theodos says.

Any city is vulnerable to an economic downturn depending on where coronavirus flares up, but the severity of that impact has to do with whether or not a given place is a "college town" versus a "city with a college," says Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English and American studies at Fordham University, located in the Bronx borough of New York City. It might seem like a semantic distinction, but it actually matters.

Universities situated in large cities, like Fordham, aren't carrying the bulk of their city's economic burden, Cassuto explains. Instead, those schools tend to count on the city's other industries to attract students. Cassuto says that his curriculum relies on what the city can offer in terms of cultural and social life; he'll send students out into New York City to engage with the "treasure trove of resources" it has to offer, he says. The university even has a tongue-in-cheek saying to describe this: "Fordham is my school, New York is my campus." So while New York City's economic health is certainly not majorly dependent upon Fordham, the university and the city are linked when it comes to the cultural experience the school is offering.

But that scenario is totally different from the outlook for a place like Williamstown, Massachusetts, home to Williams College. The school is an economic engine for the small city tucked into the northwest corner of Massachusetts, and Cassuto believes that Williamstown will consequently experience an acute economic downturn due to the lack of students.

Fordham University. [Shutterstock]

Still, for some college administrators it's still too early to predict what campus life will look in the fall, says Dayne Wahl, the assistant director of admission at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) in North Adams, Massachusetts, Williamstown's neighbor to the east. Student life is well integrated with the town's activities, says Wahl, who is also a board member of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce. "I would say MCLA [and] North Adams definitely are important to each other and interconnected," he says, in part because MCLA operates a gallery and design lab in the downtown area, which helps bring students to town so they can showcase their work to residents.

But there are a lot of factors that make up the economic outlook ofr a college town, which makes it hard to make predictions based on any one factor. Yes, MCLA may bring students into town through its gallery, but universities also host concerts and events that rely on full-time residents' attendance to be successful, says Kayla Hollins, the director of admission at MCLA. Events like these, plus institutions like on-campus museums that are open to the public, create the fabric of a community, she tells Mic. "We've been able to set up some unique areas with the town so we get involved with outdoor recreation, artists-in-residency programs," Hollins explains, which are "instrumental to our students and their academic careers."

City-wide and MCLA-sponsored events that take place in North Adams are contingent on whether or not the quarantine regulations are lifted by fall. Meanwhile, Hollins says that the success of student-serving businesses will depend a lot one whether they can survive the summer months, given that most tourists who would typically visit and supplement the spending from dispersed students will be sheltered in place too.

There are about 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., so it's hard to offer any sweeping declaration of what life will look like for each one come fall. But even if it's to varying degrees, university and college life is usually linked with the cities they're located in, and those cities usually count on a certain level of student business to stay humming. To see how strong those ties really are, we'll have to wait for the next semester to begin.