College Towns

Jeffery Green

Jeffery Green, J.D., Ph.D. (ABD) Political Science

Living in a college town appears to be a nice option because of all the intangible benefits that come from being in proximity to an institution of higher learning, but must one enjoy these fruits while assuming a higher likelihood of being a victim of crime? Do college towns experience higher crime rates?

Colleges and the towns in which they are located have traditionally been at odds. The tension extends as far back as the medieval beginnings of the institution when medieval European universities were effectively walled off and comprised a separate legal and civil entity from their host towns. This exclusivity, coupled with the fact that the scholars in these institutions were culturally and linguistically alien from the “townies,” established the foundation for a suspicious, if not outwardly contentious, relationship between the “town and gown.” History is littered with violent clashes between scholars and townspeople. So violent were the clashes that Oxford University in the 13th century and Cambridge University in the 15th century required outside intervention to broker a peace.

At the root of the problem was the sentiment that the university scholars were nothing more than arrogant and disruptive interlopers in an otherwise homogeneous town. The contentious relationship between town and gown has become more civil over time; however, the same grumblings remain in modern America. Blake Gumprecht’s 1999 book “The American College Town” illustrates the uniqueness of these “academic archipelagos” and their impact on their host towns. Addressing the uniquely American phenomenon of the college town, he presents a study examining whether the presence of a college or university in a town brings trickle-down benefits for those living in the locations where they are found. He examines metrics related to quality of life and asks the questions: Do the listed intangible benefits of living in a college town flow outward from the ivory towers into the surrounding community? Or does the town surrounding those ivory towers wilt away in their shadows?

One oft-made claim is that college towns may be prone to more crime. The evidence indicates that this “bad rap” passed down from the Middle Ages is somewhat overstated. We examine this by looking at sample traditional college towns with a student population of over 15,000 and a city population of under 200,000. The college towns were compared with what we can best describe as the “next town over,” or a town in close proximity and size but without a major student presence. Using this method, we can test the medieval townie theory that the presence of scholars in a town will eventually send it on the road to ruin. We find that the “next town over” is often the community with a higher crime rate. Consequently, the presence of a college does not drive up the crime rate.

In addition, nearly all the college towns sampled fall below the national crime rate. When the statistics are subdivided by type of crime, we see that property crimes (such as burglary and theft) are the dominant type of criminal act in college towns, occurring at a much higher rate in college towns when compared to the next towns over. However, violent crimes, such as robbery assault, rape, and murder, were generally on a par with the next town over.

Is there anything left, then, to salvage the wavering argument that college towns are dens of inequity? If we examine the relationship between college towns and their proximity to a major metropolitan area of 1,000,000 residents or more, we see that college towns and those “next towns over” are equally impacted by the presence of a large city.

We cannot say with any certainty whether the criminal element from the big city gravitates to the closest college town to ply its trade, but based on this evidence, college towns’ and the next–town–over’s crime rates were both influenced by the presence of a large metropolitan area.

A final pertinent statistic is the concentration of college students in a town and its relation to the crime rate. Towns with the largest concentrations of college students include Ithaca, New York (Cornell University), with 296.3 students per 1,000 residents; Ames, Iowa (Iowa State University), with 285.4 students per 1,000 residents; State College, Pennsylvania (Penn State) 271.6 students per 1,000 residents, Iowa City, Iowa (University of Iowa) with 205.5 students per 1,000 residents, and Corvallis, Oregon (Oregon State) with 224.3 students per 1,000 residents. Consequently, these college towns ranked in the lowest of crime rates of the cities studied, occupying five of the top six best crime rates.

Conversely, college towns which performed poorest on the metric of crime rates were those with a lower concentration of students. These towns included Missoula, Montana (University of Montana) with a crime rate of 231.4 crimes per 100,000 residents and a student concentration of 104.6 students per 1,000 residents; Burlington, Vermont (University of Vermont) with a crime rate of 261.1 crimes per 100,000 residents and a student concentration of 108.9 students per 1,000 residents; and Fargo, North Dakota (North Dakota State) with a crime rate of 213.1 crimes per 100,000 residents and a student concentration of 134.4 students per 1,000 residents. As the figure below displays, a relationship exists between student concentration and the crime rate among the towns sampled — perhaps refuting the claim that colleges breed crime.

Based on this evidence, we can state (with the normal caveats about statistical evidence) that among the college towns sampled on the metric of crime rate, college towns fared considerably better than their next–town–over counterparts. Of course, any discussion of crime in a college town must examine who it is that is committing the crimes in the first place. Is any category of person overrepresented as the perpetrators of crime in college towns? Are they students or former students? This information could provide us with the foundation for being able to say that, if not for the presence of students, these towns would be quiet and crime free. From the data provided, we cannot state this. Instead, the available evidence indicates we can shoot down the idea that colleges ruin towns, a claim whose origins were sown by those medieval townies of long ago.

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About Jeffery Green

Jeffery Green

Jeffery Green, J.D., Ph.D. (ABD) Political Science

Jeffery is a freelance writer, researcher and consultant for technology startups and other interesting ventures.

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