College Student Contribution to Local COVID-19 Spread: Evidence from University Spring Break Timing
38 Pages Posted: 21 May 2020 Last revised: 26 May 2020
Date Written: May 20, 2020
We present evidence that travel by college students, identified by the timing of university spring breaks, contributed to the local spread of COVID-19. Due to the timing of university closures, students at universities with earlier spring breaks traveled and subsequently returned to campus while students at universities with later spring breaks effectively had their breaks canceled. We collect spring break dates for traditional four-year universities and link these universities to smartphone location data. To study the effect of spring break travel on the evolution of confirmed COVID-19 cases and mortality, we use a difference-in-differences identification strategy. Our estimates imply that counties with more early spring break students had higher confirmed case growth rates than counties with fewer early spring break students. We find that the increase in case growth rates peaked two weeks after students returned to campus. Consistent with secondary spread to more vulnerable populations, we find an increase in mortality growth rates that peaked four to five weeks after students returned. We trace destinations and modes of travel for university students and find that students who traveled through airports, to New York City, and to popular Florida destinations contributed more to the spread of COVID-19 than the average early spring break student. Our results suggest that universities have a unique capacity to reduce local COVID-19 spread by altering academic calendars to limit university student travel.
Keywords: COVID-19, higher education, externalities, mobility
JEL Classification: H40, I10, I23, R40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation