Surge in remote working a big deal for college towns like Knoxville and Athens

New grads won’t leave their hometowns as often

National Weekend Edition /
May.May 22, 2022 12:00 PM
College Town, Tennessee


Remote work, which has surged for the past two pandemic years, is remapping the U.S., as fewer workers need to live in or near big cities.

Initially, the only beneficiaries of this shift were vacation destinations in the mountains and by the water, but that growth model likely won’t last as housing costs and labor shortages limit the number of wealthy migrants who can move to places like Montana or Lake Tahoe, according to Bloomberg.

Remote-work destinations will need to accommodate both well-off migrants and the working-class population already in those communities to be sustainable, according to the publication, which presents an opportunity, especially for many college towns. Smaller municipalities often are desirable places to live, and already have stable local economies driven by higher education activities.

While a generation ago that might have described Austin, Texas, before it became a booming tech hub, today it’s places like Athens, Georgia; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Fayetteville, Arkansas — college towns that students have historically left behind after graduation. City leaders now have a chance to either hold onto their graduates or lure them back once they are professionally established.

Plenty of urban college towns provide opportunities for students and graduates alike, and others are simply nice places to live that don’t have large enough populations to attract big employers of white-collar workers.

Athens is only an hour outside of Atlanta, yet is geographically and culturally distinct from Georgia’s capital, while Knoxville anchors a metro of almost a million people, with its largest employers being the Tennessee Valley Authority and the truck stop chain Pilot Flying J. Fayetteville is part of the booming Northwest Arkansas region, although not everyone wants to work for its three major corporations: Walmart, JB Hunt Transport Services, and Tyson Foods.

Despite limited employment options for college grads, all three metros have grown faster than the US as a whole for each of the last three decades in terms of the growth of their universities — the University of Georgia, the University of Tennessee, and the University of Arkansas – and their desirability for people who are able to find jobs there. Although home prices are rising everywhere, all three remain relatively affordable.

Online searches show plenty of modest homes for sale under $400,000, with plenty of undeveloped land in the surrounding area.

There seems to be an opportunity for everyone to win before sparking the kind of fights over affordability and development that inevitably arise when fast growth runs into skeptical local residents, which is the encouraging thing about “second-tier college towns” becoming remote-work destinations.

An influx of new residents would bring more economic opportunity and homebuilding potential to keep costs down without the land use and zoning reforms being pushed in more expensive cities, which is good news for the working class according to the publication.

Towns stand to benefit from diversifying their economies away from universities, even if it starts with more people working remotely rather than in corporate offices, and college students likely wouldn’t have to feel compelled to immediately move to the nearest big city to secure a good job after graduation.

For those three universities and communities, remote-work migration can amplify the growth that’s already happening and might be a way to offset some of the challenges college towns in the Northeast and Midwest are going to face this decade as shrinking pools of high school graduates threaten higher-education enrollment in the region.

[Bloomberg] — James Bell

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