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College Towns Offer Better Employment Prospects

People in college and university communities may find themselves with better employment prospects than the U.S. at large, according to a story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. The tough economic environment is forcing town and gown to work together, with benefits for both parties.

In January, six U.S. cities had unemployment rates below 4%. Three of those–Morgantown, West Virginia (home of West Virginia University, WVU), Logan, Utah (Utah State), and Ames, Iowa (Iowa State)–are college towns. Iowa City, Iowa (University of Iowa) and Manhattan, Kansas (Kansas State) are not far off the mark, at 4.1% and 4.2% respectively. That’s still less than half of the latest national unemployment rate, which is 8.5%. All of the rates are not seasonally adjusted.

College and university towns often have associated units and enterprises that generate jobs, such as medical centers and research institutes. Many research universities also have programs that encourage business spinoffs and technology transfers; these too can create jobs. Plus, the universities themselves are major employers, for both academic and support positions. The story notes that West Virginia University in Morgantown currently has 260 openings. “We’re hurting for people, especially to fill our computer and technical positions,” says a university vice president, quoted in the article.

These college towns may be economic powerhouses, but tough times are starting to cramp even their economic engines. Reduced endowments and state budget cuts have caused institutions to freeze hiring (see “Discouraging Days for Jobseekers” in Science Careers), cut back on capital projects, and reduce employers’ retirement contributions, according to the WSJ article. To counteract the drag of the economic downturn, institutions like WVU are partnering with their host cities on development projects expected to benefit the communities.  The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore are starting up similar projects.

Dubbed “communiversities,” such projects go beyond economic development, the article notes, increasing educational opportunities for city residents and bringing volunteers from the campus out into the community.