Colleges Have Been a Small-Town Lifeline. What Happens as They Shrink?

Colleges Have Been a Small-Town Lifeline. What Happens as They Shrink?

For decades, colleges offered steady, well-paid jobs in small towns where the industrial base was dwindling. But the tide of young people graduating from high school is now also declining, creating a whole new reality for colleges and universities — and the communities that have sprung up around them.

As Americans have fewer children and a decreasing proportion of young adults are pursuing degrees, the once burgeoning college slots market has been reversed. Although undergraduate enrollment has stabilized somewhat in 2022, it is still down about 7.6 percent since 2019.

“It looks like the number of young people who are likely to go to college will decline in the future, even in growing areas like the Mountain West,” said Nathan Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College in Minnesota who is driving the demand for post-secondary education examined. “We’re going to start having some tough stories.”

Taking pride in Clarion University’s graceful campus since the institution’s founding 156 years ago as a seminary, the 3,880-population Clarion County of western Pennsylvania is showing signs of a declining student body.

Since 2009, with 7,346 students, the university has shrunk by almost half. As enrollments fell, nearly 200 employees were lost, mostly to turnover. Last year, the school even lost its name when it merged with two of the 13 other universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, creating a multi-campus university called PennWest.

Tracy Becker, who overlooks Main Street from her broad desk in the city’s Chamber of Commerce, says there aren’t as many young volunteers for community events as the annual Fall Leaf Festival, which has been held on Homecoming weekend since 1953.

Kaitlyn Nevel’s café used to be staffed mostly by university students; Now she has such an employee. When foot traffic eased, she branched out into the hospitality industry. “Ideally, I’d like to see the university stay and thrive, but you just have to try to have as many backup plans,” Ms Nevel said.

As Ms. Nevel’s resigned optimism suggests, declining enrollment doesn’t necessarily spell doom for college cities. Despite the smaller student population, downtown Clarion is marred by few empty storefronts. It’s even attracted new businesses like Mechanistic Brewing, which Chelsea Alexander founded with her husband in 2019 after returning from Washington, DC

Ms. Alexander is one of 28 people in her family who attend the local university. Since 1905, her family has operated a clothing store in town, selling a line of T-shirts that trade in alumni nostalgia for long-closed favorite restaurants and towering dormitories that have been demolished. But as graduating classes shrink, even alumni attendance will dwindle.

The job market continues to show strength as the Federal Reserve tries to slow down and tame inflation.

Mrs Alexander’s father, Jim Crooks, runs the shop and he has organized local traders to spruce up the compact high street and market their shops to potential visitors who may not have such a connection to the town.

“For many years, the university carried a lot of the business,” said Mr Crooks, who also converted four apartments above the business from student housing to Airbnb accommodation. “Everyone just says, ‘We can’t rely on the university.'”

Though Pennsylvania’s university system has been shrinking along with the rest of higher education for a decade, it received a sudden shock when students disappeared during the pandemic. Among those who caught the eye: the executives of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, whose territory in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware has a higher density of colleges and universities than most.

Alongside large hospital systems, often affiliated with universities, educational institutions make up a significant part of the local economy, which was formerly dominated by manufacturing, logging and mining. Patrick T. Harker, the president of the Philadelphia Fed, wanted to find out what that percentage was — as the education and medical sectors were also starting to show cracks.

“Traditionally, eds and meds were considered recession-proof,” said Dr. harker. “This pandemic has shown that is not true.”

However, not all of these institutions are equally vulnerable. Rural hospitals are drying up, even as major health chains build new facilities in fast-growing suburbs, while dwindling student numbers flock to state flagships. “They’re stronger than ever while the regional systems are really struggling,” said Deborah Diamond, business economist at the Philadelphia Fed.

dr Diamond put together a tool that showed how dependent different regions are on healthcare and higher education. The places at the top of the dependency list were predictable, like the Durham-Chapel Hill area of ​​North Carolina with two high-performing universities. But they also included smaller areas, like that around Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, two and a half hours east of Clarion on Interstate 80. There, facilities like Geisinger Health and Bloomsburg University — another state school — make 21.9 percent of locals out of employment and 18 .3 percent of regional income.

“As we’ve seen some decline in manufacturing employment, its economic importance is higher than ever,” said Fred Gaffney, president of the region’s chamber of commerce.

The same is true in Clarion County, where the university remains the largest employer, followed by Clarion Hospital. Next is Walmart, then a couple of factories that make building materials and prefabs, several social organizations, and the county government. The county used to have more manufacturing, including a large glass factory that closed in 2010. As this declined, so did the county’s population; The workforce fell from about 21,000 in 2008 to 16,000 in 2022.

During the same period, enrollment at Clarion University began to decline, as did government funding, causing tuition fees to increase. In 2021, Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of the state higher education system, proposed forming two clusters of three schools each to consolidate operations and offer more courses across campus.

“We had to adjust our costs to our new enrollment numbers,” said Dr. Greenstein in an interview. “We were set up as if we still had 120,000 students when we had 85,000. You just can’t. Like any American family, you have to live beyond your means.”

At the same time, Mr. Greenstein was asking for more money from the state Legislature to allow the system to freeze tuition and offer more scholarships, which he said was critical to halting the decline in enrollment. The state increased the system’s base funding by 15 percent in 2022, throwing in $125 million from a federal stimulus measure. The freshman class grew slightly last fall, but not enough to offset a further drop in enrollment.

For the merged schools, impotent enrollments underestimate the extent to which student presence on campus has waned. To expand their course catalogs, schools are offering more of their courses online. This allows some students to show up in person only a few days a week — a trend that could accelerate as the system tracks more adult students, some of whom only need to complete graduate degrees or shorter certificate programs.

Clarion Mayor Jennifer Fulmer Vinson – another Clarion alumna – sees this as a loss for the county. The history lesson comes more seldom in their antique shop, set in a centuries-old house reclaimed from a long-gone Brotherhood, crammed with curiosities including an old Coke machine and a cabinet full of war medals.

“Why will students pay for campus life if they never leave their room?” Ms. Vinson said. “It’s become more of a ghost town.” (The university says the first-year student experience is intended to be campus-centric and that most courses will remain personal.)

About an hour’s drive west of Bloomsburg on Interstate 80, the town of Lock Haven also has a university that last year merged with two others in the state system. As the school has shrunk and well-paid staff have moved away, the state’s sizeable tax-free land holdings are beginning to annoy local residents.

Gregory Wilson, the city manager, created a handout showing what the average homeowner pays in taxes to subsidize Lock Haven University: $186 a year.

“I think the hope was always that somehow the investment they make to have the university here would come back to them,” Mr. Wilson said. “But that’s going to be harder to sell as the university gets smaller.”

The contraction has come along with another recent and unwelcome development: The local hospital, which bought the sprawling University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in 2017, announced in January that it would be shutting down its inpatient surgeries, forcing residents to at least half an hour for serious travel to travel care.

All of this has been deeply frustrating for Angela Harding, a Clinton County Commissioner, who says while she values ​​the hospital and university, attracting new residents to Lock Haven becomes more difficult when those economic anchors lose their footing.

“I’m tired of having to fight for every single crumb we get,” Ms Harding said.

Colleges and the cities they occupy can do little to counter demographic trends. But they should reinforce each other, say experts — the university, for example, can provide space for community events and support small businesses, while the city can organize events for prospective students and their parents. Vacant student residences could be converted into apartments for new residents who may be able to work remotely or who are looking for a quiet place to retreat to.

Matthew Wagner, the program director for Main Street America, a group dedicated to developing small inner cities, says he sees less tension in the city now that communities and schools understand their common destiny.

“Similar to if you had a manufacturer that is facing headwinds, we need to view the university as a program to sustain economic development and direct our assets and resources in that direction,” said Dr. Wagner.

Lock Haven took this idea to heart. The main street is lively, with several new boutiques interspersed with long-established local restaurants. Fabre Sanders, whose father runs a window dressing shop, moved from Boston a few years ago to open a candy and gift shop. During the pandemic, she said, residents have done whatever it takes to keep businesses afloat.

“They looked around and said, ‘If we don’t support the local people that we have, we won’t have anything,'” Ms Sanders said.