The impact of COVID-19 on small college towns

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PERU, Neb. (KMTV) — The coronavirus pandemic is causing major changes to higher education.

Small college towns across the country are seeing the tolls the pandemic can have on their economies first hand. Peru, Nebraska is one of the towns that may be affected.

Peru is a town of just under 900, but once the 2,400 students are on campus at Peru State College, the town more than triples in size. In small college towns like Peru, the college is central to the economy. According to the college, Peru State is the largest employer in town and several county areas.

“Our town is quite resilient,” said Dr. Dan Hanson, the president of Peru State College. “There have already been concerns for the small businesses in town and the area towns miss having our students in and out. They’re pretty resilient and are finding ways to maintain business until we can have a more normal approach to good education and bringing people to the area.”

Zach’s Bar and Grill in downtown Peru will be one of the businesses affected if students return to campus for a limited time period. Its owner, Zach Reeves, said the restaurant and bar is a popular hangout for Peru State students.

“College is the lifeline for Peru so with the college kids gone it hurts the businesses in town,” Reeves said.

Dr. Hanson said the college is planning on bringing students back this fall and is putting things in place to make sure people are safe. When the pandemic started in March, most of the students stayed home after spring break as the college moved to remote learning for the remainder of the semester.

“Of course it’s a major adjustment when you move all your students off campus and work to keep them going academically,” Hanson said. “How we do matters a lot to the local businesses and industry. We bring a lot of people in to the region each year.”

Hanson told 3 News Now a recent economic impact study said the school brings in nearly $9 million annually to the area. On top of jobs on campus, many people who live in Peru rent houses out to students. Reeves is one of these homeowners and said he’s down between $30,000-40,000 this year.

“It could wipe the town out pretty easily,” Reeves said. “ All of the businesses in town are based on the kids being here. It stems from my business, Casey’s the grocery store, there are several people in town who buy houses in town and rent them back out.”

“Many renters and a couple of the local businesses in town really do count on students,” Hanson said.

Dr. Hanson added Peru State has a varied revenue stream which he said is important when schools are facing challenges with the campus experience. He said the college has built up cash reserves and has been conservative with their budget. He anticipates the school will be able to get through the pandemic fiscally, but they will make some adjustments. He added current students and alumni should not be worried.

“We’re committed to the same educational experience that they had and we’re going to continue to work with our students to give them opportunities to give them a personally engaging education,” he said.

Peru State College said every school in the Nebraska State College System has been putting together a careful plan. The school already has experience in online learning, they are in their 20th year of online programming.

Watch reporter Phil Bergman’s story in the above video.

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