As the son of a university administrator, there will always be a special place in my heart for college towns. Whenever I’m traveling near a campus, I make time to hang out with the university crowd so I can take in the sights, sounds and atmosphere that are a unique part of a collegiate environment.

Students and faculty bring to these areas a distinctive sense of intellectual vibrancy, which serves as a catalyst for learning and innovation. They also play a vital role in the economic fortunes of a city or region, providing many college towns with a stable financial base even during recessionary times.

Iowa City, Iowa (Pop 67,000), and Merced, California (Pop 80,000), offer an interesting contrast on how college towns are faring amid one of the worst economic downturns in our nation’s history.

Iowa City is located in the central part of the “Hawkeye State” and is home to the University of Iowa. Several years ago I attended a rain-soaked Ohio State vs. University of Iowa football game at Iowa City’s legendary Kinnick Stadium. What struck me about the area was its semi-rural yet eclectic feel. The downtown area in particular offered a fascinating blend of coffee houses, bohemian types and the nightlife crowd that is a staple at many Big Ten universities. The city also has one the highest percentages of adult populations holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. In terms of business vitality, Forbes magazine has named Iowa City one of the best small metro areas for doing business in the U.S.

The university itself boasts a stellar reputation in teaching and research, in addition to boasting one of the top academic medical centers in the nation — the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Iowa City holds another special distinction, one that is particularly remarkable during a time when many cities are struggling to stem the financial bleeding associated with a down economy. According to March 2009 figures released by the U.S. Department of Labor, Iowa City placed among ten other cities with the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. Even more impressive is that two other university cities, Ames and Cedar Rapids/Waterloo, also placed in the top ten, making Iowa the only state to hold the dubious honor of having three cities in the aforementioned top ten.

Now let’s look west to the recently minted college town of Merced, located in what is affectionately known as the Central Valley of California. Nestled in one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, Merced historically has struggled from high rates of unemployment and poverty, largely connected to its lack of economic diversification. In 2005, the University of California at Merced opened, making it the first research university built in the U.S. in the 21st century. With this new campus came optimism for an area that has struggled mightily to boost its prosperity and economic outlook.

Unfortunately, Merced and its surrounding areas have fallen victim to a speculative property debacle, spurred by the anticipated fortunes of U.C. Merced. This modern-day gold rush instead led to high foreclosure rates and rapidly declining property values. As a result, Merced’s unemployment rate soared to 20.4%, placing it among the top five jobless cities in the nation.

Hopes remain high, though, that U.C. Merced will ultimately deliver a much-needed jolt to the area — pumping in millions of dollars to the local economy in support of a long-term sustainable economy. This May, First Lady Michelle Obama will give the commencement speech at U.C. Merced, which appears to be just what the doctor ordered in terms of boosting its college-town aspirations.

But will it be enough to cure the city’s chronic past? Only time will tell whether Merced will join Iowa City among the cities recognized for their low unemployment, robust economy and higher education presence. Hopefully, this Central Valley city will get a new chapter in its history book.

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