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Will college towns survive Covid-19?

The Covid-19 crisis is having an unprecedented impact on universities and young adults. With college towns suffering under the lockdowns, decreasing budgets and fewer students, many young students have moved back home. More than half of young American adults now reside with one or both of their parents – the highest measured value since 1940.

The coronavirus has so far led to a number of visible and possibly long-lasting changes in society and the economy. In only a few months, remote working has become the norm for many and expectations are that knowledge workers are prompted by the crisis to reconsider where they live and work. A positive effect could be that skilled workers increasingly leave rich urban areas and go to smaller towns. The regional economic disparities that are at root of many international protests such as the Yellow Vest movement could thereby be reduced.

Can we already say something about the effect of college lockdowns on cities? While even institutions that don’t do much research have been proven to generate real benefits for declining regions, the larger colleges and universities have been the big winners from the knowledge economy – attracting lots of educated workers and private capital. In recent years, budget cuts in university funding and, in some countries, the realization that the job opportunities available were not worth the large amount that had to be taken out already had its effect on universities.

Now, with the coronavirus, a negative spiral is being predicted. Covid-19 is not only depressing enrollment because it is unclear when classes will be reopened, but also because unemployment makes it hard for households to afford tuition fees. The number of international students, accounting for more than 50% in many faculties, will also rapidly decline due to travel restrictions. The devastating effects on universities’ budgets and the move to online classes will be felt by local businesses in college towns. Investment by private companies may also decrease when university budgets do not allow to replace lost researchers.

Meanwhile, in July 52% of young American adults resided with one or both of their parents, according to Pew Research Centre. Before 2020, the highest measured value was in 1940, when 48% of young adults lived with their parents. Surveys among adults who have moved since the pandemic outbreak indicate that 23% did so because their college campus had closed, and 18% said it was due to job loss or other financial reasons.

With 1,.2 billion children being out of school at the height of the pandemic, the hope is that online classes and e-learning will prove a suitable alternative to classroom teaching. As research has indeed suggested that remote teaching can increase the retention of information and takes less time, the current crisis could be the end of college and education as we know it.

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