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Study says Santa Barbara among most ‘economically vulnerable’ college towns during COVID-19

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Ryan Fish/KEYT

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - In a new study, personal finance technology company SmartAsset includes Santa Barbara on a list of 'Most Economically Vulnerable' college towns during the COVID-19 crisis.

Santa Barbara is ranked No. 13, with UC Santa Barbara as its largest institution. UCSB announced last month that most classes will be online to begin fall quarter.

The study looks into potential losses of population and revenue this fall for college towns, which could see large portions of their student population unable or unwilling to return to campus during the current health crisis. Even those students who do return will likely spend less time and money at local businesses.

SmartAsset compiled 95 college towns--with a population of at least 50,000 and at least one four-year college or university--where undergraduate students taking in-person classes make up at least 10 percent of the town's population.

The study then compared those towns across six metrics, including: students as percentage of the population; college staff as a percentage of workers; concentration of restaurants and bars; concentration of entertainment establishments; concentration of bookstores; and concentration of hotels.

The study found Santa Barbara rather dependent on the college student population's impact on, and spending within, the community. With Isla Vista home to many UCSB and Santa Barbara City College students, its businesses could be especially vulnerable. Those businesses are already feeling the effects of the pandemic like so many others.

“They are going through challenges, as far as just people not going out as much, people perhaps not having as much discretionary income and the uncertainty for what school will look like this fall,” said Ethan Bertrand, director of the Isla Vista Community Services District.

However, the potential loss in student population this fall could be offset by Santa Barbara's ideal location, population density and weather, making it still an attractive place to live even with a modified upcoming start to the school year.

Several students have already returned to the area and multiple I.V. property companies say demand for housing is similar to any other year.

“Especially folks who are spending so much to attend college or university, they do want to have that college experience,” Bertrand said. “I think right now we have a population similar to past summers.”

“I wanted to move in to my new house,” UCSB student Ty Whelehan said. “I’m paying a lease, may as well be moved in… I think in February, March, April, we kind of missed out on being down here for the second half of the year.”

Local leaders are making safety a major focus with many students set to return in the coming weeks.

“We’re not quite sure exactly what the population will look like, but we do anticipate that our neighbors will return,” Bertrand said. “And when they come back we just want to make sure that everyone is physical distancing, wearing a mask and looking out for each other’s health.”

Bertrand also addressed the densely-populated housing in I.V. as a potential issue when it comes to spread of the virus.

“We also want to make sure that the property owners and rental housing companies are taking steps to keep their tenants safe,” he said. “There are a lot of folks who could really benefit from having communication from their property providers about how they can keep their home safe, about how their roommates and neighbors can stay safe.”

Meanwhile, students are happy to be back, even during the pandemic.

“We’re not going out all the time, and we’re trying to social distance and wear our masks and everything,” Whelehan said. “But it’s still good to be back down here.”

Article Topic Follows: Economy

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Ryan Fish

Ryan Fish is a reporter, sports anchor and forecaster for NewsChannel 3-12. To learn more about Ryan, click here.


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