The Colleges That Can Spur America’s COVID-19 Recovery

Regional public universities offer affordable degrees and boost local economies, but will they survive the pandemic?

In Washington, D.C., debates around higher education tend to focus on the Harvards and Yales of the world, forgetting that elite schools don’t represent the kind of institutions that most students attend. Too often absent from these conversations are higher education’s true workhorses: so-called “regional” public universities.

While the Department of Education offers no official definition of these institutions, they basically occupy the middle space between community colleges and flagship major research universities. One analysis by Inside Higher Education tallies more than 500 schools nationwide that fit this category. Generally, they are open-access or less selective in their admissions policies and lack the prestige of their more elite counterparts, but they fulfill an essential role in helping millions of Americans advance their lives and careers.

These schools – think Eastern Michigan University versus the University of Michigan—confer nearly 40 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in America each year and as many as one-fifth of degrees overall. They are particularly important in providing higher education access to minority students—and they play an enormous role in supporting their local economies. The problem: They are also struggling to survive. Even before the pandemic, many regional public universities were facing stark financial challenges, the result of years of declining enrollments and state funding.

But if these schools pull through this period, they could be pivotal to a robust and equitable post-pandemic recovery, as a new Brookings Institution report finds. A case study of regional public colleges in the Great Lakes region, the study highlights three significant ways that these schools could bolster a post-COVID-19 recovery more broadly.

First, regional public universities are typically the economic anchor of the towns or cities where they’re located, providing any number of well-paying jobs (often as the town’s biggest employer). They also often spur regional economic development through research and development activities and partner with local employers to help commercialize new technologies or share best practices. In past downturns, according to Brookings, this support has cushioned localities from the severest impacts of the crisis. In the Great Lakes region, for instance, communities with a public four-year school lost fewer jobs during the Great Recession and recovered more quickly, study authors Rob Maxim and Mark Muro found.

Second, these universities’ close ties with their communities means they can be responsive to local employers’ needs for skilled workers. One of the biggest challenges currently facing the higher ed community is the frequent mismatch between the skills employers want and the ones newly minted graduates have cultivated. But Brookings found that in the Great Lakes, the most common majors among regional schools were business, health, and education, indicating that graduates are likely filling high-demand local jobs, such as in nursing.

Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, said this function of filling local workforce gaps is bound to become more important as the economy shifts after COVID-19 subsides. “Michigan already has an exceptionally high proportion of adults that have some college and no degree and now we have pandemic-induced unemployment and under employment,” he saidin an interview. “These populations are poised to re-enter higher education either for upskilling or to earn longer-term credentials. There’s huge pent up demand there.”

Third, regional public institutions offer broad access to higher education, which can make them potent engines for achieving greater educational equity and economic inclusion. Of course, no school is perfect, but these regional public universities have a significantly better track record than elite schools in enrolling and graduating minority and low-income students.

In the Great Lakes region, as many as 71 percent of Black students enrolled in a public university attend a regional public institution, as do nearly three quarters of Native American students, 59 percent of Latinx students and 61 percent of students who identify as two or more races, researchers Maxim and Muro found.

These schools also award a greater share of bachelor’s degrees to Black students, compared to flagships and major research universities (“R-1” institutions). In terms of absolute numbers, they grant more than twice as many bachelor’s degrees to Black students as their elite counterparts. “Regional public universities help close racial attendance gaps,” Maxim and Muro conclude.

Research by Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Opportunity Insights likewise finds that regional public colleges are also among the most successful in recruiting and graduating low-income students. Among the schools Chetty cites as best facilitating economic mobility are institutions like the State University of New York at Stony Brook and many campuses of the City University of New York. (This dedication to equity is also one reason why so many regional schools populate the top rankings of Washington Monthly’s College Guide.)

By comparison, Chetty finds that state flagship schools and elite colleges largely remain preserves of the rich, with no gains in low-income students’ enrollment. Nor have these top-tier schools become more racially inclusive. A 2017 New York Times analysis found that Black and Hispanic students are actually more underrepresented at top colleges today than they were 35 years ago. Black students make up just 6 percent of the freshman class at elite schools—a share that hasn’t changed since 1980—though their share of the college-age population has grown to 15 percent.

While regional public universities have been doing great work for decades—for both their students and their communities—they may not be doing any work pretty soon if they don’t endure through the pandemic.

The vast majority of these schools do not have the cushion of fat endowments. Instead, they rely on student tuitions and state appropriations to keep their doors open. While state funding was declining even before the coronavirus outbreak, higher education spending now faces much deeper cuts. “It’s a pretty tough period right now,” said Maxim. “States are seeing double digit revenue declines, and unfortunately higher education tends to be a balance wheel for state budgets. A lot of these schools had just gotten to 2007 pre-crisis funding levels, and we’re looking at potentially slashing appropriations again.

Moreover, many schools will face steep drops in enrollments as students rethink their fall plans—meaning more revenue losses on top of state budget cuts. While some analyses find that more college-going students are now opting for in-state schools closer to home, it’s flagships and major research universities that are benefiting from the shift. In Michigan, for instance, Hurley said that Michigan State University is likely to see its largest freshman class ever, while enrollment is likewise reportedly increasing at the University of Michigan. “State flagships have global brand pull,” Hurley said. At the same time, students more likely to head off to regional schools are now less able to afford it, even despite tuition freezes and other measures by schools to stave off enrollment declines.

While it’s still too soon to tell what impacts the pandemic will have on college enrollment and attendance this fall, regional public universities could suffer enormous economic fallout. The consequences could be dire for the students and communities that rely on them—especially low-income and minority students, for whom regional schools might be the only lifeline to greater opportunity.

“If there’s anything that’s been laid bare by the past few weeks, it’s systemic racism and the continuing inequality of access that people of color have in the U.S.,” said Maxim of Brookings. “If these schools are defunded, it’s only going to deepen those inequalities.”

Given the vital role that regional public universities have and will continue to play, the nation can’t afford to let these institutions become yet another casualty of the pandemic.

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection.