Regional Public Universities (RPUs) are four-year, community-focused public universities, and they have long been anchor institutions for the regions of the country.  As our previous work has shown, the presence of an RPU in a community can help support job growth and increase the income and educational attainment of residents.
In recent months, policymakers and researchers have increasingly recognized the important role these universities play for communities. This summer, Congress introduced a bill that may have been the first-ever legislation offering dedicated support to RPUs and the communities they serve. In the wake of the bill’s introduction, new research published last month confirmed the role that these “workhorse” institutions play in increasing social mobility in the United States.
In August, Rep. Jim Costa (D-California) and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) introduced bipartisan legislation provide federal grants to RPUs located in struggling communities. Based on our July 2021 Policy Proposal, the Boosting University Investments in Low-Income Districts (BUILD) Act would provide grants of up to $50 million over five years to enhance RPUs’ community and economic development missions. Eligible uses of the funds would include supporting local entrepreneurship and business development, expanding workforce development programs (e.g. apprenticeships), building digital infrastructure (e.g. example, local broadband networks) and the strengthening of local education systems. As written, up to 174 RPUs nationwide may be eligible to receive grants.
As University of Denver Scholar Cecilia M. Orphan noted on twitter, this bill is perhaps the first-ever federal piece of legislation aimed specifically at supporting RPUs. This is remarkable because despite the ability of RPUs to improve economic resilience and mobility across the United States, our research found that the federal government invest much less than at large public land-grant and “research 1” universities (those that conduct the highest levels of research). At a time, State investment in RPUs has stagnated— and in some states in outright decline — in the decade following the Great Recession.
In addition, The law projectthe bipartisan nature of means he can still have a chance to become law in a newly divided Congress. Indeed, the presence of these schools in red and blue states may To allow this become a rare case of collaboration between the parties in the coming vsopening session.
Following the introduction of this legislation in early October, University of Illinois researchers Greg Howard and Russell Weinstein published Workhorses of Opportunity: Regional Universities Increase Local Social Mobility. This report contains an important finding: children who grow up in counties with RPU later have higher secondary and post-secondary education and better economic and social outcomes than other children – an effect that is particularly pronounced for low income children. This confirms the importance of RPUs as anchor institutions that support both community and economic development and genuinely improve the quality of life of the people they serve.
Previous research has highlighted the role of RPUs in promoting upward mobility, especially for low-income people. In 2017, the Stanford University economist Raj Chetty and his co-authors found that some “middle” public universities such as the City University of New York system and the California State University system had the highest levels of social mobility from the bottom income quintile to the top quintile. These universities are among the list of establishments which Brookings Metro has defined as RPUs.
A key caveat of Chetty’s work was that the analysis did not identify whether the universities themselves had a causal effect on student outcomes – it was simply a descriptive analysis. The new research from Howard and Weinstein shows that the positive educational and social effects of RPUs on children are causal, rather than simply correlated to children who live near universities.
To do this, the authors used a new analysis strategy. To constitute a control group, the authors compare the distribution of “normal schools” (now modern RPUs) opened between 1839 and 1930 with the distribution of insane asylums opened during this period. As the authors write, the criteria used by policy makers to locate normal schools and insane asylums were very similar, meaning that “asylum counties are a good counterfactual for what would have happened in the normal counties if the normal schools had not been converted into regional public universities”. The authors show that, from this similar baseline, normal school counties (which now contain RPUs) have better educational and social outcomes for children than “counterfactual” asylum counties.
Specifically, the new analysis finds that RPUs have a variety of positive educational benefits: they increase high school graduation rates (with the largest effects on people from low-income families) and increase the share of people who grew up in the county who go to college and receive a four-year degree. And these benefits persist into adulthood, strengthening local economies. The presence of an RPU also improves the share of people who grew up in the county who are employed in their mid-thirties, as well as the income percentiles of those residents – again with the strongest effects for people who grew up in low-income households. . RPUs even have positive social impacts: their presence increases the share of people who grew up in low-income families in the county who marry.
Earlier work by Howard, Weinstein and their colleague Yuhao Yang used this same technique to show that RPUs promote local economic resilience in times of downturn and for communities impacted by trends such as deindustrialization and energy transitions. These findings reaffirm how effective RPUs can be as economic anchors and strengthen the case for policymakers to invest more in them.
While the economy has returned to growth and the labor market continues to expand, the United States still struggles with persistent inequalities by location and declining economic mobility. As this new research and legislation shows, policymakers can and should look to regional public universities to help solve some of the defining challenges the nation continues to face.
- Although there are a variety of definitions as to what exactly constitutes a “regional public university”, we have previously defined them as four-year public institutions that have a physical campus and are not 1862 land-grant universities , large “Research 1” universities, or federal or state or maritime academies.