- Regional public colleges help insulate the counties they're located in from economic contractions, according to a recent study from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers.
- They primarily examined areas that suffered from manufacturing declines and found that those with regional public colleges were more resilient to economic shocks compared to those without such institutions.
- The academics hypothesized that regional colleges are financially steady because they receive regular state funding and demand for education is higher during economic downturns.
Regional colleges are roughly defined as public four-year institutions without a state flagship or research designation.
Some higher education experts say they have been overlooked in policy discussions, as they are not as prominent and enroll fewer students than their flagship counterparts. However, in many cases they cater to low-income or other marginalized students and serve as economic engines in their respective areas.
Some researchers, meanwhile, have taken new interest in regional institutions.
A recent proposal from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, outlined how the federal government could label some regional colleges as "distressed-community-serving institutions" and provide them with millions of dollars in grants to help stimulate their local economies.
The U of Illinois study also speaks to the need for new investment in regional public colleges, said one of its authors, economics professor Greg Howard.
"There's an underappreciation for how important they are to these areas," Howard said.
The research is a working paper that is currently being peer reviewed. It was published last year by the Institute of Labor Economics in Germany and was updated last month. Howard said the researchers aim to have it published in the Review of Economics and Statistics journal.
To determine whether regional colleges bolstered economic resilience in an area, the academics looked at the placement of normal schools, which the state government established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to train teachers, and insane asylums.
The researchers said state governments employed similar criteria to place the normal schools, many of which developed into regional public colleges, and the asylums, which generally converted to psychiatric health facilities and remained small in size.
But as manufacturing declined, those counties that had been assigned normal schools fared economically much better than those with asylums, the researchers found. The manufacturing industry peaked in the 1970s and has since been on a downslide, which was first concentrated in the Rust Belt but has been broad since 2000.
"In fact, the universities provide nearly full resilience, so every job lost due to additional manufacturing exposure in asylum counties is not lost in normal counties," the study states.
Howard said he was surprised by the degree to which regional colleges shielded their counties from economic slumps.
While outside of the study's scope, he said the inverse likely would prove true, and local economies would suffer if regional public colleges were hurt financially.
"This solidifies that there is a benefit that regional universities have for their communities," Howard said.