Amid COVID-19, college towns were left empty as students were forced to go home last spring and finish the school year online. These colleges must make the difficult decision on whether to keep their campus closed and have students take classes remotely from their homes or open the campus again and welcome students back into these small towns. This decision does not only affect the health and welfare of the student and resident population, but also the economy and government services of the towns in which this schools are located.


City Pop.


School Pop.

Student % of Pop.


Vermillion, SD 13,921 University of South Dakota 9,998 72% In-person
Pullman, WA 46,808 Washington State University 25,823 55% Online, Labs in-person
Brenham, TX 37,437 Blinn College 17,707 51% In-person
Vincennes, IN 37,937 Vincennes University 18,198 48% Hybrid online/in-person
Oxford, MS 34,437 University of Mississippi 17,707 41% In-person
Athens, OH 21,358 Ohio University 21,482 38% Some in-person/mostly online
Starkville, MS 49,403 Mississippi State University 18,159 37% In-person
Levelland, TX 23,577 South Plains College 8,534 36% In-person
Kingsville, TX 11,619 Texas A&M University-Kingsville 11,619 36% Hybrid online/in-person
Ames, IA 94,035 Iowa State University 32,998 35% In-person


In these top 10 college towns, located in “Very Small Places,” the population of students comprise 35%-72% of the town’s population. The economy and local businesses in these towns thrive off the students and major events put on at campus, such as football games. Often, these colleges and universities are the town’s biggest employer, like in Ames, Iowa, where Iowa State University employs more than 10x as many people as the next-largest employer – city government. Without students (and many employees) on campus, businesses and governments are bracing for large impacts to bottom lines and budgets.

Origins of trips ending in Pullman, WA, home of Washington State University, August 2020

To gauge how “back to school” may be affecting local businesses, INRIX utilized Trip Analytics to measure trips in college towns. While we often use Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) as one measure of the economy, measuring trips taken is also key. Understanding trip and travel behavior allows businesses and public agencies key metrics to analyze the health of networks, find key spots to locate businesses, and accurately gauge investment decisions. [1][2]


In 2019, trips increased across the board in August, led by large gains in Pullman, Washington (Washington State University) and Starkville, Mississippi (Mississippi State University). Yet so far in 2020, August trips remain far below last year’s gains and even run negative in many places – with the exception of Ames, Iowa (Iowa State University). This loss in activity reflects many concerns highlighted in the media about college towns’ ability to recover from the financial hit from COVID-19 and the related shutdowns:

Further, four of the 10 schools are opening up for classes this week, and all have at least some in-person learning. Those opening to full classes this week are all increasing, but at a lower rate than last year, while Vincennes, utilizing a hybrid in-person/online model, trails compared to last year:


August 2019

August 2020

Iowa State +12% +25%
Mississippi State +41% +36%
University of South Dakota +15% +12%
Vincennes University +17% -5%


Trip Analytics is a great tool for towns, cities, and businesses to utilize to analyze local trip patterns and transportation statics and gain a better understanding of what is going on around them. More data are needed as schools open to ascertain the impact of COVID-19, but so far, trip patterns around small college towns appear to be edging closer to last year.

[1] For example, if one person drives 100 miles, that is 100 VMT and 100 passenger-miles traveled (PMT). If two people each drive 50 miles, that too is 100 VMT and 100 PMT, but with two (or more) trips; and if 2 people drive together for 100 miles, that’s also 100 VMT, but also 200 PMT.

[2] Trip generation statistics are key for businesses developing property and for local government agencies to determine a developments impact. These numbers can weigh heavily on things like parking demand, future traffic levels, and needed improvements to intersections and signals.

[3] 2019 – Average daily trips measured 6/1/2019 through 8/17/2019 2020 – average daily trips measured 6/1/2020 through 8/15/2020.