Eastern Michigan University
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In Washington, D.C., debates around higher education tend to focus on the Harvards and Yales of the world, forgetting that the vast majority of students don’t attend elite schools. 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 research universities. One analysis by Inside Higher Education tallies more than 500 schools nationwide that fit this category. Generally, they are less selective in their admissions policies and lack prestige, but they fulfill an essential role in helping millions of Americans advance their lives and careers.

These schools—think Eastern Michigan University instead of the University of Michigan—confer nearly 40 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in the country each year and as many as one-fifth of degrees overall. They are particularly important in providing students of color access to higher education—and they play an enormous role in supporting their local economies. 

The problem is, they are also struggling to survive. 

Even before the pandemic, many regional public universities were facing stark financial challenges. Enrollment numbers and state funding had been in decline for years. Now, their revenue may shrink further, as some students shift to cheaper community colleges for online classes and others are unable to afford college altogether. 

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

First, regional public universities are typically the economic anchor of the towns or cities where they’re located, and are often the town’s biggest employer. They also often spur 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 most severe 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, the study’s authors, Rob Maxim and Mark Muro, found.

Second, these universities’ close ties with their communities mean 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 region, the most common majors at 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 the pandemic 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 underemployment,” he told me. “These populations are poised to reenter 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 engines of equity and economic inclusion. Of course, no school is perfect, but these universities have a significantly better track record than elite schools in enrolling and graduating minority and low-income students in terms of sheer numbers. 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 Hispanic students, and 61 percent of students who identify as two or more races, Maxim and Muro found.

These schools also award a greater share of bachelor’s degrees to Black students than flagships and major research universities. 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 concluded.

Research by Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist who focuses on social mobility, and his colleagues at Opportunity Insights likewise finds that regional public colleges are 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 slots of the Washington Monthly’s college rankings, see page 62.)

By comparison, Chetty finds that state flagship schools and elite colleges are still largely preserves of the rich, with essentially no gains in the share of low-income students enrolled (despite much-ballyhooed initiatives to increase economic diversity). 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, they may not be doing any work if the pandemic wreaks havoc on their budgets.

The vast majority of regional universities lack the cushion of fat endowments. Instead, they rely on student tuitions and state appropriations to keep their doors open.

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,” Rob Maxim told me in an interview. “States are seeing double-digit revenue declines, and unfortunately higher education tends to be a balance wheel for state budgets.” State legislators, in other words, know that they have more flexibility when it comes to funding public universities in comparison to other priorities, such as K–12 education or prisons, where funding levels are fixed or mandated by statute. “A lot of these schools had just gotten to 2007 pre-crisis funding levels,” Maxim continued, “and we’re looking at potentially slashing appropriations again.”

Moreover, many schools will face steep drops in enrollment numbers as students rethink their fall plans—meaning more revenue losses on top of state budget cuts. While analysis from McKinsey finds 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. Hurley said that Michigan State University, for instance, 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 changes schools have made to stave off enrollment declines.

As of this writing, it’s still too soon to tell what impacts the pandemic will have on attendance this fall, but it’s clear that 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 may 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.,” Maxim said. “If these schools are defunded, it’s only going to deepen those inequalities.” Given the vital role that regional public universities play, the nation can’t afford to let these institutions become yet another casualty of the pandemic.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.