Regional Public Universities Boost Social Mobility in Their Communities: Economists

Economic mobility and higher college attainment rates also were among the positive impacts of these schools, according to a new paper.
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  • Regional public universities boost economic and social mobility in their communities, according to a new paper.
  • These schools increase college attainment, particularly for people from lower-income families, researchers say.
  • Regional public universities have also been shown to economically benefit their communities as a whole.
  • The schools enroll roughly 40% of undergraduate students in the United States and play a key role in the country's education system.

People living in counties with a regional public university have higher high school graduation rates, higher degree attainment, and better social mobility, according to a new study.

Regional public universities are a massive boon to their local communities, according to a recent paper by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign economists Greg Howard and Russell Weinstein.

To figure out how much of a boon they are, however, required some innovative research techniques involving historical analysis of state institutions including mental asylums.

Howard and Weinstein compared geographic locations that historically had normal schools — state institutions originally set up to educate elementary school teachers that generally evolved into regional public universities — to areas with state-funded mental asylums that were generally changed into psychiatric hospitals and other facilities.

This analysis helped the researchers better understand how regional public universities affect their communities.

And since asylums and normal schools were assigned to counties using similar criteria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to the study, this made them a good point for comparison. The normal schools grew into universities, while asylums stayed small.

The results were stark, with regional public universities boosting college attainment rates in their local communities. Howard and Weinstein also found that the effects of a regional public university are largest in relative terms for children from lower-income families.

Children whose parental income was at the 25th percentile — regional public universities raised the fraction of those children with a four-year college degree by more than 8%, Howard said in a release. In addition, regional public universities improved the fraction of children in the county who are employed in their mid-30s as well as their income percentiles, with effects concentrated among children from lower-income families.

Regional public universities enroll about 40% of all undergraduates in the United States, according to the study, and their students are more likely to be from a family with a lower income or from a historically underserved racial group compared with other four-year public universities.

Weinstein and Howard didn't find strong evidence that regional public universities' positive effects on a community come from their impact on the local economy, K-12 education, or family characteristics, according to the study.

This suggests the mechanism is perhaps the most obvious one: regional public universities increase access to higher education for students in the local area and this increases mobility, the pair wrote.

Proximity to a university affects access to higher education and economic mobility, according to the study. Weinstein said in the release that questions remain about how students living outside that immediate proximity might benefit from boosted outreach from the universities.

We're identifying an effect on people who grew up in these counties relative to people who grew up in the same state but weren't near a regional public university, Weinstein said. One of the policy questions raised by this research is whether students outside of the immediate geographic boundaries of the regional public universities would benefit from more outreach.

In addition to boosting college attainment and social mobility, regional public universities are key to promoting community development, according to a 2021 Brookings Institution report. That report noted that regional public universities are important anchor institutions to promote economic and community development for distressed communities.

That report recommended providing regional public universities with five-year grants of up to $50 million to support their local development efforts — and a bipartisan bill in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced this summer would set up such a program.

U.S. Rep. Jim Costa (D-California), who co-sponsored H.R. 8688 with U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Arizona), called the legislation an investment in infrastructure during an August press conference.

Development efforts covered by the program include creating apprenticeship programs, renovating community-accessible buildings, and investing in broadband infrastructure and other community development efforts.

Howard and Weinstein, alongside graduate student Yuhao Yang, outlined how universities boosted local economic resilience in a separate paper earlier this year. That paper also made use of the comparison between locations that once had normal schools and those that had state-funded mental asylums.

We also see nearly full resilience when looking at population and earnings, Yang said in a March release. Further analysis shows universities also enable resilience to the mining employment decline of the 1980s, and to the general ups and downs of the business cycle.