30 college towns that could face economic ruin if schools don't reopen or have to close again this fall

  • Some college students are returning to campus for their fall semester.
  • Whether universities decide to have in-person classes or a hybrid model, college towns where students usually make up a large share of the town's population may be greatly affected.
  • Business Insider decided to look at colleges that have a large number of undergraduates to determine which towns may be most economically vulnerable during the upcoming school year.  
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Some college students across the country have already started their fall semesters, whether it be in-person or online. As some students choose to take online courses or are not interested in returning to college, this can affect the economy of towns dependent on college students.  

Many colleges closed and transitioned to remote learning in March, causing many to report budget shortfalls. Colleges are also estimating more financial losses for the current fiscal year. For instance, Oregon State University projects a budget shortfall of $217 million, and undergraduates make up about 33.7% of the population in the university's home town of Corvallis.

Cornell University also estimates an overall budget shortfall of $210 million, even with a hybrid fall semester. The Ithaca campus of Cornell University already reported a loss of $45 million for the previous fiscal year. 

There are many factors that contribute to the economies of college towns, including students spending money in the local economy and supporting businesses that employ workers. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston analyzed college towns in New England and found 45% of wages and 38% of jobs in these towns and cities come from colleges and universities.

Additionally, businesses that usually rely on students bringing in revenue have also been negatively affected by campus closures these past few months. Bloomberg CityLab interviewed a hospitality company in State College, Pennsylvania, where the main campus of Penn State University is located. Curtis Shulman, the director of operations for the company, said 60% of their revenue occurs during the academic year and 20% alone comes from football weekends.  

Business Insider decided to look at the college towns that would be most affected if students don't return for in-person classes or if the university with the largest number of undergrads in the town have to move to a fully remote semester.

To figure out which college towns are the most economically vulnerable, we based our ranking on undergraduate enrollment as a share of the town or city's population. To do this, we looked at the 200 colleges and universities with the largest number of degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates based on fall 2018 college data from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS.) We focused on schools that are mainly four-year, bachelor-earning schools.

We then calculated the share of these undergraduates in the population of the towns and places where these large campuses are located. We used 2018 population estimates of incorporated places from the US Census Bureau and focused on those with at least 30,000 residents.

IPEDS has specific enrollment data based on whether a student is taking distance classes or not. Since we want to estimate the share of students living in the town or city, we decided to look at the total number of undergraduates who are taking either some or no distance classes, rather than all-online courses, as a share of the population.

Although many of the colleges that made the top of our list are reopening for the fall semester, a few are choosing hybrid models or going fully remote. This includes Rutgers University-New Brunswick where many of the classes will be held online and Michigan State University, which only recently decided students should learn online.

The following are 30 college towns that may be the most negatively impacted if students of the largest college campus in the town don't return or have to leave campus again, based on the share of residents of the towns that are undergrads. We included both the share of students who are normally either fully on-campus or only taking some distance-based courses and the share who are taking no distance courses.

30. Montana State University

Montana State University is located in Bozeman, Montana. The 14,458 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 29.8% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 28.1%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: In-person classes for the fall semester, which have started on August 17.

29. The University of Alabama

The University of Alabama is located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The 30,081 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 30.0% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 20.4%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Most classes are in-person.

28. Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona University is located in Flagstaff, Arizona. The 22,497 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 30.5% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 21.7%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Hybrid model.

27. Kansas State University

Kansas State University is located in Manhattan, Kansas. The 16,917 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 30.8% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 25.2%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: In-person classes until November 20 with classes offered in-person, online, and through a hybrid model during the fall semester.

26. Illinois State University

Illinois State University is located in Normal, Illinois. The 17,888 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 32.7% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 26.0%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Classes are offered in-person, online, or in a hybrid model.

25. Oregon State University

Oregon State University is located in Corvallis, Oregon. The 19,871 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 33.7% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 23.5%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: The majority of classes for the Corvallis campus will be remote.

24. University of Virginia (main campus)

The main campus of University of Virginia is located in Charlottesville, Virginia. The 16,175 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 34.0% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 31.9%

Current fall plan, according to the Associated Press: The University announced on August 28 that the school will return to in-person classes.

23. James Madison University

James Madison University is located in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The 19,450 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 36.4% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 35.1%

Current fall plan, according to The Washington Post: The university just announced on September 1 classes have been moved to online throughout the month with a few hybrid classes for some students, such as graduates. 

22. Auburn University

Auburn University is located in Auburn, Alabama. The 23,845 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 36.4% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 29.2%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: In-person classes started on August 17 and finals will be held remotely.

21. Utah State University

Utah State University is located in Logan, Utah. The 18,827 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 36.7% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 24.4%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Classes started on August 31 and students started moving in on August 15. Classes are offered online, in-person, and through a hybrid model.

20. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is located in Champaign, Illinois. The 32,831 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 37.3% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 24.9%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Classes started August 24 offering as "much in-person instruction as restrictions of space, health and safety allow."

19. Indiana University-Bloomington

Indiana University-Bloomington is located in Bloomington, Indiana. The 32,907 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 38.7% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 33.5%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Online and in-person classes will be held until November 20. All classes will be remote from November 30 to the winter break.

18. Oklahoma State University (main campus)

The main campus of Oklahoma State University is located in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The 19,609 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 38.8% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 24.2%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Classes began August 17.

17. Sam Houston State University

Sam Houston State University is located in Huntsville, Texas. The 16,588 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 39.3% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 21.8%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Hybrid model

16. Bowling Green State University (main campus)

The main campus of Bowling Green State University is located in Bowling Green, Ohio. The 13,264 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 42.0% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 33.8%%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: In-person classes, which started August 26.

15. Iowa State University

Iowa State University is located in Ames, Iowa. The 29,070 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 44.0% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 35.3%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Classes started August 17 with multiple teaching models.

14. University of California-Davis

University of California-Davis is located in Davis, California. The 30,690 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 44.3% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 42.1%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Students can choose to take courses on campus or online.

13. California Polytechnic State University

California Polytechnic State University is located in San Luis Obispo, California. The 21,043 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 44.5% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 41.1%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Only a small share of courses will be held in-person with on-campus housing available as single dorms. 

12. Texas A & M University-College Station

Texas A & M University-College Station is located in College Station, Texas. The 53,150 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 45.8% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 42.6%

Current fall plan, according to a local Texas news station: Classes will be held in-person and online.

11. Cornell University

Cornell University is located in Ithaca, New York. The 15,105 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 49.3% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 48.9%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Classes are offered online, in-person, or through a hybrid model.

10. Texas State University

Texas State University is located in San Marcos, Texas. The 33,531 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 52.6% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 38.9%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Classes are offered online, in-person, or through a hybrid model.

9. University of Delaware

University of Delaware is located in Newark, Delaware. The 18,988 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 56.6% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 54.3%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Classes started on September 1 with the majority being online.

8. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University is located in Blacksburg, Virginia. The 27,681 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 62.2% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 44.4%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Hybrid model.

7. Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Rutgers University-New Brunswick is located in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The 35,336 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 63.2% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 47.7%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: The majority of classes will be held online with a few exceptions such as labs.

6. Georgia Southern University

Georgia Southern University is located in Statesboro, Georgia. The 21,115 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 66.7% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 49.7%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: In-person

5. Purdue University (main campus)

The main campus of Purdue University is located in West Lafayette, Indiana. The 33,092 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 67.5% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 55.2%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Classes began on August 24 and in-person classes will end on November 24.

4. Washington State University

Washington State University is located in Pullman, Washington. The 23,388 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 68.9% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 61.8%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: All undergraduate classes will be held online. 

3. Michigan State University

Michigan State University is located in East Lansing, Michigan. The 38,895 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 81.3% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 63.7%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: The university president announced on August 18 changes to the plan including that students should stay and learn at home if they haven't already returned to campus. Off-campus students are also encouraged to learn remotely. 

2. Kennesaw State University

Kennesaw State University is located in Kennesaw, Georgia. The 29,302 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 85.9% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 56.5%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Classes started August 17, both in-person and online, and will be held remotely after Thanksgiving break.

1. University of Maryland-College Park

University of Maryland-College Park is located in College Park, Maryland. The 30,163 degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates, excluding those who are only taking distance classes, make up 93.7% of the population.

Undergrads who aren't taking any distance classes as a share of the population: 85.3%

Current fall plan, according to the school's website: Undergraduate courses will be held remotely for the first two weeks of school before in-person classes on September 14. 

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