Without students, college communities’ poverty rate falls

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By Robbie Ward
Daily Journal

TUPELO – Brent Scribner may make $5,500 annually working part-time, but he doesn’t consider himself impoverished. After all, he’s a college student.

Many traditional college students postpone earning full-time wages in exchange for lesser income while they learn educational skills they hope will lead to a higher- paying job.

While they don’t have lots of earned income, college students often receive support from a combination of their parents, scholarships and student loans.

“The majority of my money comes from financial aid,” said Scribner of Tupelo, a senior accounting student at Mississippi State University.

A report released Monday using 2009-2011 data from the Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey examined the impact of college students living off-campus on poverty rates. Since college students voluntarily limit their income to attend school and have other sources of support, they’re not usually considered impoverished by most standards but have limited income that places them below the poverty level.

The Census report removed college students from poverty rates of communities throughout the nation, showing significant drops in many places. In Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state, cities and counties with universities have significant differences in poverty rates when college students aren’t factored into the data.

Starkville, a city of about 23,268 using data from the years evaluated, had a poverty of 32.9 percent including students but had a nearly 13-point drop to 20 percent when not considering students.

Two groups of college students excluded in the report are college students living on campus, since they aren’t used as part of the official poverty measure, and students living off campus with relatives, since their poverty status is determined with the entire family.

Tim Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes separating college students from poverty rates gives a more accurate picture of a community.

“You don’t do yourself any favors by calling people poor who really aren’t,” he said of college students. “I don’t think they should count kids who appear to live independently but are supported by grants, loans and family.”
Ron Cossman, a demographer and professor at Mississippi State University, said using the adjusted poverty information can have beneficial purposes when trying to recruit retail businesses and restaurants into an area. “We should tout these numbers as much as possible because they’re a more accurate reflection of Starkville,” Cossman said. “The student population tends to spend an awful lot of money that goes into the local economy.”

Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman agreed, saying he and other community leaders in the city make the case for college students’ buying power when businesses approach the community about locating to the area.

“Retail prospects are concerned with buying power,” Wiseman said. “If there’s more buying power than research shows, that’s something we need to point out.”

For the region’s other college town community, the Census report didn’t have data for Oxford but showed a drop in poverty rates in Lafayette County when students weren’t considered. The county’s poverty rate dropped 7.7 percent, from 24.6 percent to 16.9.

Max Hipp, president and CEO of the Oxford-Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation, said other factors such as wage levels and school systems are indicators of a community’s quality of life.

However, he said he might use this new data in conversations.

“It would indicate a much more affluent community,” he said.

However, in the state with the highest poverty rate and many others throughout the country, few local and state leaders will likely push to change how the Census reports on poverty. Communities with lower rates of poverty receive less federal taxpayer dollars to help improve the quality of life for residents.

Even within the state, the Mississippi Development Authority gives incentives to businesses locating or expanding in areas with high poverty rates. With a rate of 33.9 percent that includes MSU and East Mississippi Community College students, Oktibbeha County participates in the program.

“Having the high poverty rate has advantages and disadvantages,” Wiseman said.

“This program helps businesses.”

Back at Ole Miss, senior marketing major Jeff Hamm of Tupelo will spend the upcoming fall semester working part-time jobs on campus. Focused now on getting the right mix of high grades in the classroom and experience to put on his résumé, he’ll think about poverty some other time, like after he graduates and competes in the job market.

“That’s when I’ll probably consider myself more impoverished,” he said.

robbie.ward@journalinc.com