Public colleges and universities do more than just educate students: Northern Michigan University has created a wireless LTE network that brings affordable high-speed Internet service to Michigan’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula. The University of North Carolina at Pembroke used CARES Act dollars to vaccinate members of the Lumbee tribe against COVID-19. Research from the University of Michigan at Flint has helped the city of Flint respond to significant lead contamination in its drinking water.
These are just a few examples of the value of regional public institutions for the communities where they are located, a new report of the Brookings Institution supports.
The report, released today, suggests the federal government should invest millions in regional and rural public colleges and universities to help them — and surrounding communities — recover from the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Providing federal assistance to communities is critical to their recovery from the pandemic, said Robert Maxim, senior research associate at Brookings and co-author of the report.
“But at the end of the day, you really need partners on the ground to be channels for that investment,” he said. Public regional colleges are “the ultimate types of anchor institutions for implementing this”.
Such an investment would take the form of grants of $25 million to $50 million, disbursed over five years – at a cost of $1.41 billion per year – to nearly 150 regional public institutions “located in struggling communities to supporting the economic and economic situation of these schools and community development missions,” the report states.
Accredited public four-year colleges and universities would be considered “institutions serving the distressed community” and would be eligible for funding if they have a physical campus in the United States or surrounding territories and are located in a community in distress or in a county that has Native American Tribal Land The authors listed 141 institutions potentially eligible to start, including the University of North Alabama, Clayton State University in Georgia, the University of Wichita State in Kansas, the University of Minnesota in Morris, and the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey. (This paragraph has been updated to reflect the location of Wichita State University.)
The report says many land-grant universities and large research institutes should be excluded, as should federal service academies and state military or maritime colleges.
Kevin McClure, associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and co-founder of the Regional College Research Alliance, supports the report’s policy recommendation.
“There’s increasing stratification geographically where you have communities that are thriving and others that are being left behind,” McClure said. “A lot of times conversations about how to fix this don’t include the fact that you have anchor institutions like colleges that can play a really important role in supporting communities in distress.”
The report proposes that the grants be split into two parts: a small planning grant of up to $100,000, which would allow eligible institutions to design a project that would support economic and community development, and a larger, multi-year implementation grant. totaling between $25 million and $50 million and distributed among several community development projects.
By comparison, in fiscal year 2019, the federal government allocated nearly $1.5 billion to support land-grant universities and nearly $45 billion to higher education institutions for research and development. .
The federal government has always focused its support on large flagship research institutions, according to Maxim. He pointed to the federal lands given to the states for create and staff flagship universities in the 1800s and 1900s. He also noted the federal research funding provided to these universities throughout the 20th century, particularly during the Cold War.
“There’s kind of an unchallenged idea that big land-grant and research universities have a federal level of support and there’s a national interest in that,” Maxim said. “On the other side of the coin, however, there is no involvement with other public four-year universities. This falls within the jurisdiction of the States.
There is a precedent for federal investment in regional public four-year colleges. The Institutional Strengthening program was designed to support colleges and universities that have low teaching and general expenses and that enroll many low-income students. A portion of the Higher Education Act of 1965 was also established to provide grants to institutions serving rural areas, but this section was never funded by Congress.
Some institutions with other federal designations—such as historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and universities, and non-tribal institutions serving Native Americans—receive federal support. But the federal programs that support these designated institutions do not have economic and community development missions. Moreover, these designations leave out a number of institutions that play a vital role in their communities.
Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said her organization was pleased the report shed light on the importance of regional colleges and universities.
“This highlights some of the challenges these underfunded colleges and universities face in serving their communities and regions,” García said in a written statement. “AASCU supports efforts to provide additional funding to help these stewards of place fulfill their mission of providing access, retention, and success for America’s new majority and higher education (the first generation, low income, and students of color).”
Questions about an institution’s value are often raised when a college is forced to close, merge, or seek a buyer. Some higher education financial experts argue that struggling colleges are not worth investing in because they are not financially viable.
Maxim pushed back on this idea. He believes regional public colleges — many of which have seen declining enrollment, revenue and state funding in recent years — are essential anchor institutions for their communities and should be supported despite their operating deficits.
“The idea that a typical public high school in America would need to turn a profit would seem pretty absurd to some people,” Maxim said. “And it’s funny when all of a sudden you come back to the higher education discussion – that if a school isn’t fully self-sustaining or operating for profit, then it doesn’t deserve to exist.”
Maxim hopes members of Congress and Department of Education officials will seriously consider the report’s proposal.
“We really hope that not only Congress and members with institutions in their districts will take an interest in this, but also local leaders and state leaders,” he said.