- The federal government should create a competitive grant program for regional public universities to enhance their surrounding communities, according to a new report from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
- AASCU recommends a required state match for the federal grants, with states not permitted to lower their appropriations for participating colleges and universities’ budget items like operations and financial aid.
- Regional universities could apply for the grants based on specific projects to promote regional stewardship, AASCU suggests. These matching grants would spur states to continue funding community development initiatives, especially during economic downturns, the association said.
AASCU’s report, released Wednesday, focuses on how regional colleges can bolster "stewardship of place," which refers to institutional efforts to respond to its surrounding community’s needs, support economic development, and train local workers such as nurses and educators.
The nation's 517 regional comprehensive universities are “uniquely committed to stewardship of place,” AASCU contends. These institutions include colleges that are part of large public networks, such as those in the California State University system, as well as nonflagship institutions like University of Tennessee at Martin. AASCU notes that a little more than half — 53% — of students seeking bachelor's degrees at public four-year institutions attend these universities.
But more funding is required for regional stewardship to remain part of these universities’ missions, AASCU says. The association’s chief proposal here is the new federal-state matching grant for stewardship projects.
In addition, AASCU recommends repurposing funding from federal agencies to support these stewardship initiatives. For instance, existing programs to recruit traditionally underrepresented students into STEM fields could be strengthened to meet the nation’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics needs.
Another key part of regional universities’ missions is preparing students to be engaged citizens. As such, both states and regional colleges should help students vote to “foster a lifelong commitment to engaging in the policy process at the local, state, and federal level,” AASCU says.
Nationwide, colleges have made strides in this regard, with the national student voting rate reaching 66% in 2020, up from 52% during the 2016 presidential election, according to the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education. The rate for all voters was 67% in 2020, the institute said.
AASCU also suggested that Congress expand new funding for infrastructure projects to all four-year public colleges, especially those that serve high shares of students eligible for Pell Grants. The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities have also signed onto that proposal, according to the report.
Those associations previously announced this proposal in early 2021, when Congress was considering an infrastructure proposal from President Joe Biden. Later that year, federal lawmakers passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that significantly pared back Biden’s original plan.
“Funding the regional stewardship mission of [regional comprehensive universities] is an investment in America’s future,” the report says. “With additional resources dedicated to stewardship of place, RCUs can fully leverage and harness their intellectual and infrastructural assets to prepare civically engaged citizens, train workers in response to critical workforce needs, and advance the economic and social vitality and resilience of communities.”