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New legislation and research reaffirm the importance of regional public universities for local economies

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By Robert Maxim, Mark Muro, Yang You

Regional public universities (RPUs) are public, four-year, community-oriented universities, and they have long been anchor institutions for regions across the nation. [1] As our previous work has shown, the presence of a RPU in a community can help bolster employment growth and increase residents’ income and educational attainment.

In recent months, policymakers and researchers have been increasingly recognizing the important role these universities play for communities. This summer, Congress introduced a bill that may have been the first-ever legislation providing dedicated support for RPUs and the communities they serve. On the heels of that bill’s introduction, new research released last month affirmed the role that these “workhorse” institutions play in increasing social mobility in the United States. 

In August, Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) introduced bipartisan legislation to provide federal grants to RPUs situated in distressed communities. Drawing on our July 2021 policy proposal, the Boosting University Investments in Low-Income Districts (BUILD) Act would provide grants of up to $50 million over five years to enhance RPUs’ community and economic development missions. Eligible uses of the funds would include supporting local entrepreneurship and business development, expanding workforce development programs (e.g., apprenticeships), building out digital infrastructure (e.g., local broadband networks), and strengthening local education systems. As written, as many as 174 RPUs nationwide may be eligible to receive grants. 

Distribution of potential eligible schools under proposed Brookings distressed-community-serving designation and proposed BUILD Act legislation

As University of Denver scholar Cecilia M. Orphan noted on Twitter, this bill may be the first-ever piece of federal legislation specifically aimed at supporting RPUs. That’s noteworthy because despite RPUs’ ability to improve economic resiliency and mobility across the U.S., our research has found that the federal government invests significantly less into them than it does into large public land-grant and “Research 1” universities (those that conduct the highest levels of research). At the same time, state investment in RPUs was stagnant—and in some states in outright decline—in the decade following the Great Recession.  

Moreover, the bill’s bipartisan nature means that it may still have a chance of becoming law in a newly divided Congress. Indeed, the presence of these schools in both red and blue states may allow it to become a rare instance of cross-party collaboration in the coming congressional session. 

Following the introduction of this legislation, in early October, University of Illinois researchers Greg Howard and Russell Weinstein released Workhorses of Opportunity: Regional Universities Increase Local Social Mobility. This report contains a significant finding: Children who grow up in counties with an RPU later have higher secondary and postsecondary educational attainment and better economic and social outcomes than other children—an effect that is particularly pronounced for lower-income children. This affirms the importance of RPUs as anchor institutions that both support community and economic development and truly improve quality of life for the people they serve. 

Previous research has pointed to the role of RPUs in promoting upward mobility, particularly for low-income individuals. In 2017, Stanford University economist Raj Chetty and co-authors found that certain “mid-tier” public universities such as the City University of New York system and California State University system had the highest levels of social mobility from the bottom income quintile to the top quintile. Those universities are among the list of institutions that Brookings Metro has defined as RPUs.  

One key caveat of Chetty’s work was that the analysis did not identify whether universities themselves had a causal effect on student outcomes—it was merely a descriptive analysis. The new research by Howard and Weinstein shows that the positive education and social effects of RPUs on children are causal, rather than simply a correlation about which children live near universities. 

To do this, the authors used a novel analysis strategy. To create a control group, the authors compare the distribution of “normal schools” (which became modern-day RPUs) that opened between 1839 and 1930 to the distribution of insane asylums that opened during that period. As the authors write, the criteria policymakers used to locate normal schools and insane asylums were very similar, meaning “asylum counties are a good counterfactual for what would have happened in the normal counties had the normal schools not converted to regional public universities.” The authors show that, from this similar baseline, normal-school counties (which now contain RPUs) have better education and social outcomes for children than the “counterfactual” asylum counties. 

More specifically, the new analysis finds that RPUs have a variety of positive educational benefits: they increase high school graduation rates (with the largest effects on individuals from lower-income families), and increase the share of individuals who grew up in the county that attend college and receive a four-year degree. And these benefits persist well into adulthood, which bolsters local economies. The presence of a RPU also improves the share of people who grew up in the county that are employed in their mid-30s, as well as those residents’ income percentiles—again with the strongest effects for people who grew up in lower-income households. RPUs even have positive social impacts: Their presence increases the share of individuals who grew up in lower-income families in the county that get married.  

Prior work by Howard, Weinstein, and their colleague Yuhao Yang used this same technique to show that RPUs promote local economic resilience during downturns and for communities affected by trends such as deindustrialization and energy transitions. These findings reaffirm how effective RPUs can be as economic anchors, and bolster the case for policymakers to further invest in them. 

While the economy has returned to growth and the labor market continues to expand, the U.S. is still grappling with persistent inequality by place and declining economic mobility. As this new research and legislation show, policymakers can and should look to regional public universities to help solve some of the defining challenges that the nation continues to face. 

Footnotes:

  1. While there are a variety of definitions as to what exactly constitutes a “regional public university,” we have previously defined them as public, four-year institutions that have a physical campus and are not 1862 land-grant universities, large “Research 1” universities, or federal or state service or maritime academies.

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