Wednesday, March 15, 2023

As enrollment decreases, rural college towns struggle to adapt; when a college leaves, the losses are painful

Kaitlyn Nevel works at her cafe in Clarion, Pennsylvania.
(Photo by Ross Mantle, The New York Times)
Decreasing enrollment in postsecondary education has been particularly challenging for rural communities with colleges, and to survive, they must adapt, reports Lydia DePillis of The New York Times. "For decades, institutions of higher education provided steady, well-paid jobs in small towns where the industrial base was waning. But the tide of young people finishing high school is now also starting to recede. . . . As Americans have fewer children and a diminishing share of young adults pursue a degree, the once-burgeoning market for college slots has kicked into reverse . . . creating a stark new reality for colleges and universities — and the communities that grew up around them." Nathan Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., who studies the demand for postsecondary education, told DePillis, “It looks like the future is declining numbers of young people likely to attend college. . . .We’ll start to have some tough stories.”

The western Pennsylvania town of Clarion, pop. 3,900, is an example. DePillis writes, "Clarion has taken immense pride in the graceful campus of Clarion University since the institution was founded as a seminary 156 years ago. Since 2009, when it had 7,346 students, the university has shrunk by nearly half. With the drop in enrollment has come the loss of nearly 200 staff members. . . . Last year, the school even lost its name, as it was merged with two of the 13 other universities in the Pennsylvania State System" of Higher Education.

Fewer students means local businesses have to find solutions, DePilis reports: "Kaitlyn Nevel’s cafe used to be staffed mostly with university students; now she has one such employee. As foot traffic lightened, she branched into catering. Nevel told DePillis, “Ideally, I would love to see the university stay and thrive, but you just have to try and have however many backup plans."

Universities and local businesses can adapt together. "Colleges and the towns they occupy can do little about demographic currents. But they should, experts say, reinforce each other — the university can offer space for community functions and support for small businesses, for example, while the town can throw events for prospective students and their parents," DePillis writes. "Vacant student housing could be converted into homes for new residents who might be able to work remotely or want a quiet place to retire."

Montgomery, West Virginia, Mayor Greg Ingram looks out over the old library
of West Virginia Tech, which moved. (Photo: Nick Fouriezos, The Daily Yonder)
While Clarion offers a possible survival model when enrollment drops, towns that have lost their colleges serve as a somber reminder. "In 2017, West Virginia University relocated West Virginia Tech from its home of 120 years, citing low enrollment and high costs while moving from Montgomery to Beckley, a bigger city an hour up the valley. The decision risks making the former college town of Montgomery into a ghost town," reports Nick Fouriezos of The Daily Yonder.

Such moves are "feeding distrust of larger state universities, many of which have grown larger by acquiring rural outposts that end up being the first cut once leaner times hit," Fouriezos reports. "West Virginia Tech, and its once top-10 engineer program, had been one of the area’s proudest assets. . . . But then WVU bought the campus in 1995. Ever since, residents here feel, the flagship university has worked to move it out."

Montgomery Mayor Greg Ingram told Fouriezos, "In West Virginia, we’re robbing from the poor towns and putting wealth into richer towns. They just wanted it out of here: It’s all political. Fouriezos reports, "Ingram lamented the loss of the Kroger, the car dealership, more than 100 well-paid university professionals, and, of course, the students who rented hundreds of rooms throughout the region."

Hanging out in Montgomery's last remaining bar, Fouriezos overheard one patron say, “I love West Virginia University, but they wrecked the city of Montgomery.”

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