In Kevin McClure's view, the public often only hears about regional colleges when disaster strikes.
These colleges serve a broad contingent of students, yet they generally have fewer resources compared to their flagship and research counterparts and get little attention in the postsecondary landscape, says McClure, a higher education professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, one such institution.
In an attempt to undo misconceptions and elevate these colleges' profiles, McClure and several like-minded academics devised the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges. The collaborative seeks to emphasize the importance of these schools, public and private, through academic study.
They got around $125,000 in grant money from the Joyce Foundation prior to their public launch this month and plan to publish an inaugural report next week.
Higher Ed Dive discussed with McClure what the research group hopes to accomplish and some of the myths surrounding regional colleges.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HIGHER ED DIVE: What was the impetus for the new alliance?
KEVIN MCCLURE: The four of us had been working to build up understanding of regional colleges, given that the sector has traditionally been overlooked. We have been bothered by the persistence of deficient writing and thinking about regional colleges and we have frequently looked for opportunities to cast off those framings and take a more explicitly appreciative approach to understanding the contributions these institutions make. That doesn't mean ignoring their challenges, but it does mean not being preoccupied with them.
But we weren't doing anything in a coordinated way. Even though we are in a pandemic and not necessarily in a great position to launch something new, we saw this as something we couldn't pass up, an opportunity to accomplish something bigger and bolder.
How long do you envision the project being sustainable — the next few years?
Yeah. A big part of this is extending the work beyond us. We want to bring in new researchers on projects. We want to try as best we can to help new scholars and doctoral students find resources. There's a fair amount of research happening about these institutions from doctoral students, but they may not have the resources or assistance to get that work published. We'd like to build a community of researchers so it becomes more of a movement and less a series of one-off activities.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about regional colleges?
They range. Some think of these institutions as being identity-less or undistinguished. Or that they are institutions where faculty weren't talented enough to get a job at a better-known institution. Or that the institutions are not comfortable with their mission and are trying to change into something else.
One misconception I'm particularly interested in tackling is that they are perpetually on the brink of collapse or are facing a mass extinction event.
There is no sector in higher education that doesn't have problems. We're not going to be approaching this with such a bias that we don't see some of those challenges. There are institutions that have severe financial problems. But we want to try to pull back from some of those isolated cases.
Where do these myths stem from?
National media sometimes has a tendency to cover these institutions when there is a kind of salacious story, like when an institution is facing financial ruin or has a leader that made a serious mistake. Another piece of it is some of the research done on these institutions has focused on a particular subset that may not be representative of the sector.
Some of it, honestly, is just bias amongst folks who are in the business of writing about higher education. A lot of those people attended more elite institutions. A lot of faculty went to research universities for their training. There is a hierarchy within the higher education system.
Has the role of these institutions changed in the last several years?
Not much. But within the last 20 years, the country has really tried to focus on increasing the number of Americans who have a college degree. We also have mounting concerns around income inequality and racial injustices. Because of that constellation of issues, we can't afford to continue overlooking and maligning these institutions, because they play a big role in addressing those challenges. We want to move the degree attainment rate and have people enter the middle class. Regionals are more affordable and are going to be pivotal on these issues. But they can't do anything if we continue to undercut them.
What is it going to take to advance regional colleges?
Funding is a huge piece of the puzzle. That includes state funding as well as philanthropy, seeing these institutions as worthwhile. Gifts like those from MacKenzie Scott can be transformational at these institutions, while they might not even register as an enormous gift at a flagship or elite private school.
Putting a spotlight on these institutions and what they are doing well will help with recognition. We want them to feel comfortable being access-oriented and not feeling like they have to chase revenue sources that may pull them away from their mission. By doing that and by ensuring we've got positive attention on the institutions, it will help frame them as vital to the postsecondary sector, which will attract more students and faculty.
How has the pandemic affected them?
The challenges are similar for all institutions. It's a matter of magnitude. There's a big difference when there's a budget cut for a flagship or large research institution because they have access to revenue sources that regional institutions don't, and so they're capable of bouncing back in different ways.
Some of my research shows it took 10 years or more after budget cuts from the Great Recession before some regional universities were able to hire back some of the positions they eliminated.
One fear we have is that regionals may experience budget cuts as well as revenue losses from housing and dining, just like all institutions. But because they rely on state funding and have fewer other revenue sources to tap into — such as philanthropic gifts or major grants — it will hit them harder and they will recover slower
This has direct ramifications for tackling some of the important issues in higher education today. We could see, for example, that we would lose some ground when it comes to college completion. We could see an exacerbation of racial opportunity gaps when it becomes harder for first-generation low-income adult learners to get to college. That's one of the biggest challenges when it comes to COVID-19: How can we prevent an effect of that magnitude?
Are you targeting this research to a particular audience?
We don't have a single audience. We're not viewing our primary audience as other scholars. We want to do work that informs policy, so policymakers are certainly part of our audience, as well as newsmakers and influential thinkers for their ability to tell the story of higher education broadly, and of this sector in particular.
The last big audience is probably the institutions we're researching. In fact, we've already had a number of productive conversations with leaders of these institutions. We have swapped ideas, we have provided data and resources, and we want them to be able to come to us with requests like: "Hey, here's what we're experiencing. I'm trying to make this case to our legislature. Do you have some data or analysis to help support us in that?" We want to help institutions in a very direct way