Regional Public Universities Are Key to Higher Ed Access. How Are They Defined?

A new study from the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges attempts to answer how regional public universities are defined.
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  • A new report from the Alliance for Research on Regional College identified 474 regional public universities.
  • Regional public universities are key access points to higher education, but they haven't been well defined as a group.
  • A lack of a definitive list of regional public universities has meant that those schools were "largely invisible in scholarly and policy discussions," according to the report.
  • Regional public universities educate roughly half of all students at four-year public universities in the United States, according to the report.

Regional public universities are more than just key access points to higher education — they're also vital anchors for economic and community development.

But despite their importance to both students and their communities, regional public universities haven't been well defined as a group. The schools are scattered across the United States and tend to be as varied as their home communities.

That lack of a definitive list of regional public universities has long meant those schools were "largely invisible in scholarly and policy discussions," according to the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges (ARRC).

ARRC on Monday launched a comprehensive list of 474 regional public universities spread across 49 states, as well as the territories of Guam, the Northern Marianas, and Puerto Rico. Wyoming is the only state without a regional public university, according to the ARRC report.

The list underscores the scale of regional public universities nationwide: The schools serve more than 5 million students, according to ARRC, or nearly half of all students at four-year public universities.

Regional public universities are vital to higher education access for students of color, according to the ARRC research.

They educate 58% of Black or African American students, 47% of American Indian or Alaska Native students, and 44% of Hispanic or Latino/a students. Those schools are also crucial for low-income students, with 37% of their students being Pell Grant recipients, according to the ARRC report.

Of the 474 regional public universities, 29% meet the enrollment criteria to be considered a minority-serving institution (MSI), and 49% are rural-serving institutions, according to the report.

Dr. Cecilia M. Orphan, director of partnerships for ARRC and the project's principal investigator, told BestColleges in a November interview that regional public universities have in the past been defined by the things they are not, such as flagship universities or community colleges, rather than by their similarities.

Orphan and her team used a cluster analysis, or a statistical method to group similar objects in a dataset, to identify regional public universities based on a wide range of data. Orphan said regional public universities are key to regional research and higher education accessibility.

"They do vary so much depending on their region and their students," Orphan said.

That variation is a strength for regional public universities, Orphan said, but it also makes it harder to nail down a definition for the schools.

She said she thinks about the mission of a regional public university as having three main parts: fostering postsecondary access, putting students at the center of university decisions, and offering service to their community and region.

Orphan said media outlets and society often measure the quality of a college by how difficult it is to get into, a model that promotes exclusionary colleges, or by how much research it produces.

Regional public universities — which are built around accessibility and affordability and educate historically underrepresented students — are disadvantaged by those blanket comparisons with elite research universities and well-funded state flagship institutions, she said.

"Regional publics, by virtue of their mission, students, and the communities that they serve, don't adhere to those characteristics," Orphan said.

Regional public universities have been shown to boost economic and social mobility in their communities, according to a study released earlier this year by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Regional Public Universities Receive Less Funding, but Remain More Affordable

Despite enrolling such a substantial percentage of U.S. students, particularly from historically underrepresented groups, regional public universities receive significantly less funding compared with other universities, according to the report.

Regional public universities receive an average of $1,091 less per full-time equivalent enrollment in state appropriations than non-regional public universities, according to ARRC, even though state appropriations generally represent a larger proportion of regional public universities' budgets.

Regional public universities also receive far less in federal grants and contracts on average than other schools. Non-regional public universities receive an average of $208 million in federal grants and contracts. An average regional public university receives just $9 million.

Although regional public universities receive significantly less funding from state and federal governments than other schools, they manage to remain more affordable: Their average tuition and fees are $8,896, compared with $12,325 for other schools.

Regional public universities have fewer faculty and staff per full-time equivalent student than non-regional public universities as a result of that significant funding gap, according to ARRC.

What the List Means for Regional Public Universities

The number of students that regional public universities educate, and their impact on historically underserved students and distressed communities, means there "is an urgent need to design public policy and funding strategies at both the federal and state levels" to support the schools, according to the report.

Federal and state funding to higher education often centers on workforce and economic development, but it tends to ignore community development work, according to ARRC. The report recommends that the federal government "establish a trust or grant program that would allocate funding directly to RPUs" and require states to continue or increase funding for regional public universities.

A federal grant program for regional public universities should be distributed as aid rather than on a competitive basis since those schools lack resources due to staffing shortages, the report recommends.

Some federal lawmakers have already introduced legislation to help fund regional public universities.

U.S. Reps. Jim Costa, a California Democrat, and Bruce Westerman, an Arizona Republican, introduced legislation earlier this year to give grants of between $25 million and $50 million to regional public universities to serve distressed communities, BestColleges previously reported.

"For too long, regional public universities, I think, have been left behind in terms of getting their due," Costa said at an August press conference at Fresno State University.

Regional public universities should be seen as an asset by state officials and lawmakers, according to ARRC, because they tend to align degree offerings with regional needs and enroll a higher share of in-state students.

The report also warns that state flagship universities are opening satellite campuses near regional public universities. By allowing that expansion into regional public universities' service areas, "state policymakers are complicit in exacerbating the enrollment challenges facing some" regional public universities, the report reads.