The University of Arizona’s undergraduate enrollment has increased in recent years, bucking the declines experienced by many colleges throughout the U.S. For the Tucson region, the university’s home, that upward trend is key.

Higher education institutions are “the most important” element to the economic life of Arizona cities and towns, said Michael Guymon, president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber.

“The University of Arizona is the greatest economic asset that we have in the region,” he said.

The area also hosts Arizona State University facilities, Pima Community College and various trade schools. Those institutions are “extremely important for us to provide much-needed postsecondary education to develop the skills needed for companies to hire the right people and ultimately to succeed,” Guymon said.

Enrollment at colleges and universities throughout the U.S. has dropped significantly in recent years, a trend worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. And enrollment could continue to drop 5% to 10% a year in the near future, according to Clive Belfield, a professor of education and labor economics at Queens College, part of the City University of New York.

The U.S. is experiencing a declining college-aged population, while rising college costs, student loan debt and a reasonably attractive labor market have prompted some prospective students to avoid higher ed, Belfield said.

College leaders have also grappled with stagnant state funding and pressures to lower tuition, along with stagnant state funding. As a result, since 2016, more than 90 colleges and universities in 34 states have announced or finalized mergers or closures.

These college closures and the declining enrollment can have major ramifications for cities and towns that rely on the vast economic benefits that higher education provides.

Colleges are “primary economic engines” and a major part of the rural economy, said Matthew Wagner, chief program officer at Main Street America, a group that aims to improve the economic viability of downtowns.

Read the full article about college towns by Danielle McLean at Higher Ed Dive.