In the mid-1970s, the town of Fairfield, Iowa, had a problem. Parsons College, which had been one of the town’s economic anchors for nearly a century, lost its accreditation in 1967 and shut down in 1973. The town faced the future of many rural towns across America: declining population and worsening economic fortunes.
But local politicians had an idea: They’d recruit a new educational institution to come to town and move into Parsons’s abandoned campus. It wasn’t an easy time to recruit a new university; at the time, there were 23 vacated college campuses for sale across the country, according to “Small Towns, Big Ideas,” a 2008 report by Will Lambe, who was at the time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Government. But the town found a willing buyer. In 1974, the leaders of Maharishi International University purchased Parsons’s 72 buildings, and the town of Fairfield changed dramatically as students of transcendental meditation descended on the region. The university brought new residents, students, and money, all of which have lent verve to the rural town. Today, it’s home to a number of start-ups and new businesses.
The example underscores something that is becoming increasingly clear throughout America: College campuses and educational institutions can bolster the economies of small towns that otherwise would be struggling like many other rural locations throughout the country. Many of the rural areas that are thriving today are either home to natural features they can capitalize on—like Aspen, Colorado, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, do with skiing—or they’re the home to colleges or universities. The main benefits of educational institutions are twofold: They often produce research and technology that can be parlayed into new businesses, creating jobs nearby. And they bring to the area students, who spend money on restaurants and services, and attract professors and administrators, who do the same and also buy houses and cars.