College towns across the nation wouldn’t exist without the universities that define them
Lines of people painted in black and gold held out crumpled tickets to the scanner as they shuffled into Kinnick Stadium at The University of Iowa. It was warm for November, especially in Iowa City. So warm that some people were covered in body paint. Other wore emblemed sweatshirts. Some still had their muddied farm boots on below their jeans. The game had been sold out for days. The closest hotel that still had rooms was 30 miles away. Restaurants opened early. Friends tailgated. The sidewalks and stores and buses and bars of this college town were all filled with the buzz of a weekend football game.
For most people living in and around Iowa City, the university defines the town’s culture. The city simply wouldn’t exist in the same way without the University of Iowa. Game days in Muncie, Indiana are slightly less exciting, but the economic impact of the university is the same. College towns depend on the colleges that inhabit them.
So what is a college town? Blake Gumprecht poses this question at the beginning of his book The American College Town. To him, a college town is any city where a college or university exerts a dominant influence over the character of the town. There’s a distinction. There are cities like Indianapolis where colleges exist. But the large urban areas dilute the influence of a college on the place directly. Small cities like Muncie and Bloomington are more directly defined by the colleges and all that go with them.
Gumprecht also goes by this criteria: He argues that if the number of four-year college students equals at least 20 percent of a town’s population, it is considered a college town. He kept track of these schools on a list. In 2000, Ball State students made up 28 percent of Muncie’s population, making it one of nine college towns in the United States. In Iowa City, enrollment was 46 percent of the town’s population.
Muncie Mayor Dennis Tyler is quick to say that Muncie would be a ghost town without Ball State. Without the university or the hospital, his answer was simple. Muncie would simply fail to prosper economically. Not just at Ball State, but across the state and nation, college towns would not exist as they do without the university. Take Salisbury University (SU), a public university in Maryland on Gumprecht’s list of college towns, as an example.
SU has less than half the number of students Ball State does. At just 10,500 students, faculty, and staff, SU has still grown the economy in the community of Salisbury by around $130 million in the last decade alone.
Even a university half the size of Ball State has a huge impact on the surrounding economy. In Muncie, the university is the town’s biggest employer and many local businesses exist because of the campus.
In 1984, Ball State’s Bureau of Business Research produced a study designed to assess the impact of Ball State on the Muncie community. As a state-supported institution of higher education and a major employer within Delaware County, the report states, Ball State recognizes its obligation to inform taxpayers on the economic returns.
The study’s findings showed that Ball State had a huge impact on the community:
- Ball State’s business sector impact on the Muncie/Delaware County region was at least $128 million
- Expenditures by the nearly 3,000 faculty and staff members was around $18 million
- Local purchases by students exceeded $26 million
- Over 250,000 people outside Delaware County visited Ball State, spending around $5 million
- More than 8,500 jobs were directly or indirectly attributed to Ball State
- Every two students create nearly one full-time-equivalent job locally
- Area retailers attribute around 30 percent of their business to Ball State faculty, staff, and students
The impact of college town extends beyond the monetary elements. Universities provide a cultural economy as well, and resources at a university contribute toward enhancing the overall community.
According to a 2015 roundtable presentation by the Center for Business and Economic Research, Ball State has supplied community engagement in the following ways:
- $250,000 in-kind commitment to Muncie Vision 2016
- Over 11,000 students contributed over 350,000 hours to about 350 agencies/groups in the local community
- In the past 6 years, 100+ immersive learning projects in Delaware County
- In the past 2 years, 700+ other outreach projects in Delaware County
- Carnegie Reclassification as a “Community Engaged University.”
Universities are hubs for music, literature, sports, and community engagement. Ball State’s planetarium, free to the community, is considered one of the best in the nation. The auditorium draws performers and speakers like Oprah, The Blue Man Group, and Laverne Cox. Its sports games, just like those at many universities, are broadcasted nationally.
I went back to Iowa City in January for a basketball game. The mood was just as eccentric, the hotels almost as packed, the community just as involved. I wrestled with the idea that this university, these sports teams, could draw in an entire community. But in a way, in this isolated state, this university was the center point for miles and miles of people. I drove a half an hour away from the campus. There were flat farms, and lonely gas stations, and empty stretches of land where ice was still melting away. And every now and then, there were bales of hay with the emblem of a Hawkeye painted on the side. Or a black and gold flag that blew alone on the side of a brick ranch house. This city just wouldn’t exist without the university. In fact, it would be a lonely, barren place without football and basketball and libraries and musicals.
This week, Ball Bearings takes an in-depth look at the impact college towns have on communities. Across the country, college towns like Muncie, Iowa City, and Salisbury exist because of the universities that thrive there.