How regional public colleges benefit their communities

Many regional public colleges were hit hard by the pandemic. At some of these institutions, enrollment declines and financial difficulties have been so severe that questions have been raised about their relevance and longevity.

But these colleges serve an important population: low-income students. And they act as economic engines in their regions.

These are the main conclusions new research two economists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studied the benefits of these institutions to their local communities. The researchers found that regional public colleges improve the educational attainment and economic outcomes of residents in their regions.

The study was an extension previous studies conducted by Russell Weinstein, associate professor of labor and employment relations and economics, and two co-authors, Greg Howard, also associate professor of economics at Illinois, and Yuhao Yang, graduate student in economics. The final article was written by Weinstein and Howard.

The researchers compared counties with publicly funded mental asylums to counties with “common schools” — colleges established by the state government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to train school teachers. In the mid-20th century, many of these regular schools were converted into regional universities. As for asylums, many became psychiatric hospitals or rehabilitation facilities.

The researchers found that children who grew up in counties with regional public colleges received more education and experienced better economic and social outcomes than children in counties with former state-funded mental asylums. Children from lower-income families were most positively affected by regional state institutions.

The study found that living near these universities increased high school graduation rates among residents and also improved other economic factors, including employment, household income, marriage rates and geographic mobility.

Chronicle spoke with Weinstein on Thursday about the implications of his research and what leaders at these universities can learn from his findings. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In your research, you compared counties with “mainstream” schools to counties with state-funded mental asylums to determine the impact of regional public universities on local residents. How did you and your co-author decide on this approach?

We began to read about the history of universities and how they determined where universities were located.

Often times, state legislatures decided where to locate schools at the same time they decided where to put these shelters.

Some counties randomly got a normal school and some counties didn’t get a normal school. But they got a different kind of state institution: an insane asylum. What determined whether they got one or the other often seemed to come down to political deals, and it could have ended up the other way around.

Your research shows that living in counties with regional public universities has a positive effect on residents. How did you attribute these effects to colleges?

Based on many indicators of economic and social mobility, we see that these regional public universities influence the people who grow up next to them.

If we want to know the impact of regional public universities on their local market, we want to know what the economic mobility of people in the county would have been if the county never got a university. What is this counterfactual?

We argue that we can learn this counterfactual by comparing the counties that received these insane asylums instead of regular schools, because those counties looked remarkably similar before these institutions were designated. Just one institution accidentally became a regional public university.

What does your research say about the role of regional public colleges compared to other types of colleges?

People who grow up in a county with a regional public university instead of another private, smaller, more expensive one, we see that they’re more likely to get a college degree and get all these other economic, social, and mobility effects.

We do not claim that the colleges in these sanctuary counties are representative of all private universities. But we see that growing up next to a regional public university has these positive mobility effects compared to growing up next to other colleges that are less likely to be public and more expensive and smaller.

This study helps to demonstrate the importance of regional public universities. How can the leaders of these colleges use these results to demand more state funding?

Since their inception, the central mission of regional public universities has been to increase access to higher education for people living nearby.

Our research shows that regional public universities do. They increase access to higher education and all sorts of other economic and social impacts on the people growing up next to them.

Regional public universities can contribute to the state and local markets in several other ways. We quantify one of these ways, and any funding decision involves many trade-offs. Thus, we hope that our research will be useful to managers in quantifying one of these key benefits, and that it will be useful to policymakers thinking about these trade-offs and funding.

What else should regional public university leaders take away from this work?

We still see a gap in the probability of obtaining a college degree for people who grow up in a county with a regional public university compared to people who don’t grow up in a county with such a college. It’s important to know that there seems to be some friction in college attendance based on geography. It is important to understand why this is so.

Once people have a good understanding of the causes of this gap, university leaders can begin to think about policies that could help people in these remote areas.

Some public regional colleges have experienced significant enrollment declines. Do we need as many public regional colleges as we currently have?

These universities train a very large proportion of college students. Regional public universities are anchor institutions in their local markets. They help their local economy immensely. They are also engines of economic mobility.

These arguments are already there and discussed. Our main contribution is to provide causal evidence that regional public universities have these specific effects and that these benefits should be useful when considering the costs and benefits of funding these institutions.

How does this new research build on your previous research? How does it cover new ground or add evidence to established research?

Our previous research found that regional public universities make their local economies more resilient to negative economic shocks.

Our main contribution with this paper is to provide causal evidence about the impact of these universities on their local communities. It has been a challenge in the literature to attribute causality to a regional university. This causal evidence is so important for policy makers to determine university funding and to understand what would happen if funding changed in this market.

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