College Students & Local Area Poverty Rates

The Census Bureau released a paper (citation below, link here) attempting a correction of sorts for the poverty level in counties and cities with a university. Specifically, the paper looks at the poverty rates with and without college students living without their families and off campus. What they find is a significant difference for some communities. That is, for some of the communities, when you exclude these students you get a significantly lower poverty rate. This is not too surprising really when you consider the rationale for many attending college is to increase their lifetime income.

A few notes about the research before we get into the specifics for North Dakota. I like the approach and analysis. It does lead to a few questions that might be best addressed in other articles but could certainly be mentioned here. One that comes to mind is the potentially transitory nature of youth poverty. The opportunity cost of attending college for some is the wage they could earn if working full time. There is a choice to give up earnings now to increase lifetime earning power.  So for how long will they stay in poverty after completing the degree? This actually brings us right to the next question.
How long are the students staying in the area? Upon graduation many students likely leave the area for employment elsewhere. It would be interesting to know if the areas that had significant differences exhibited differences in how many students left, or how quickly the students left.
Another interesting question would be to consider the overall community age distribution and poverty-age distribution to determine how those factors contributed to a difference in the rates, if at all? Communities with higher poverty among all age groups might exhibit a different pattern than those where the students do make up a large percentage of overall poverty or even just youth poverty. This is the type of information that would be very useful to planners as the article suggests.
Now to North Dakota: Cass County and Grand Forks County were two counties in North Dakota that saw statistically significant decline in the poverty rate after the exclusion of the off-campus students. The cities of Fargo and Grand Forks also experienced significant declines. As I mentioned earlier, this is not terribly surprising. The student populations make up a significant portion of the populations in those communities and the various questions I mentioned in general would certainly apply to the North Dakota areas too.
I think this also highlights an issue for many North Dakota communities: too many labels. Let’s take Grand Forks for example. What is Grand Forks? Is it a college town? Is it a regional retail center? Is it a “destination city?” All of these are applied to Grand Forks, sometimes simultaneously. We can debate the appropriateness of that some other time, the point I want to make here is that each of these labels would lead to potentially different policy choices as well as different levels of concern about the level of poverty in the community.
College students are an important part of the community in many college towns, and clearly play an important role in North Dakota communities too. They do potentially play havoc with the results we see in measures such as poverty rates and, likely, unemployment rates. The lesson from this paper is that delving deeper into the numbers is usually a good idea that can better inform policy.
Bishaw, Alemayehu. “Examining the Effect of Off-Campus College Students on Poverty Rates.” SEHSD Working Paper 2013-17. U.S. Census Bureau, Social, Economic & Housing Statistics Division, Poverty Statistics Branch. Downloaded: 30 July 2013.

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