Stimulating Regional Economic Development Through Public Universities

5 min readFeb 9, 2021

State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) and Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges (ARRC)

David A. Tandberg, Cecilia M. Orphan, and Alisa Hicklin Fryar


The COVID-19 pandemic and associated recession have devastated working- and middle-class Americans. During recessions, adults and young people who have lost jobs often turn to college to retool, reskill, and retrain to find new jobs. The role of community colleges in job training, workforce development, and economic recovery is well understood. These local-serving institutions have rightly received attention from policymakers for their work to promote economic vitality in their regions. They support workforce development by aligning degree and certificate offerings with industry needs. A variety of federal and state policies and initiatives exist to support community colleges in their workforce and economic development efforts.

Less attention has been given to the role of public universities that provide locally and regionally focused job training programs, certificates, and degree programs. More often than not, these tend to be regional public universities (although at least seven Research I universities also serve these roles). Like community colleges, these universities serve their communities in a variety of ways, including aligning degree and certificate offerings with regional economic demands, offering competency-based educational pathways, facilitating apprenticeships, and enrolling adult learners. These universities also frequently partner with area chambers of commerce to forecast economic trends and support regional economic development. In some communities, there is no community college and it is a university providing career and technical education and associate’s degrees. Legislation has often failed to support local-serving universities in doing this important work, though. Policies that only target those institutions that are defined as community colleges or two-year institutions will unnecessarily leave many geographic areas and communities unserved. A smart strategy would instead be to identify the institutions (whether universities or community colleges) that enhance regional workforce development and economic recovery and then direct additional public funding to those colleges and universities doing this vital work.

In this brief, we focus on a group of public universities in regions where there is no local community college. As we show, in addition to providing access to bachelor’s and advanced degrees, these public universities are serving, in various ways, functions more often associated with community colleges by offering associate’s degrees and career and technical education. By highlighting this group of public universities, we hope to emphasize the dual function many play in their regions. This is particularly true of the regional public universities, which have a specific mission of serving their local communities and a long history of doing so. We also hope to show that this postsecondary sector remains an untapped resource for supercharging economic recovery with policies that enhance career and technical education, apprenticeships, competency-based education, and adult retraining.


We identified 84 public universities across 29 states, where no public community college or public two-year technical college exists within its core-based statistical area or in its county. The universities also had to have offered and awarded undergraduate certificates or associate’s degrees in the past year. As Figure 1 below reveals, most states have at least one community that has a public university serving such a role.

Figure 1: Public universities serving local and regional communities

Figure 1: Public universities serving local and regional communities

Source: Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS)

Notes: These data do not account for all community college branch campuses since not all branch campuses are included in IPEDS.

As indicated, the vast majority of these public universities are regional public universities, with 19 classified as Baccalaureate institutions, 47 as Master’s-granting institutions, and 12 as Research II and Doctoral/Professional Universities. There are also 14 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) in the group.

Table 1
Source: Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS)

As Table 2 demonstrates, in 2019, these universities awarded 7,657 undergraduate certificates and 12,437 associate’s degrees. They also tend to be open access or nearly open access, with seven that are open enrollment and 62 others with admissions rates above 70%. In some cases, the universities may be open access for students in their local communities while using selective admissions for students enrolling outside their local community. They also often have a strong STEM focus at the associate’s degree and undergraduate certificate levels (with 10,556 credentials awarded in 2018).

Many of these universities additionally enroll people in continuing education and occupational credits and courses. While there are no standard definitions for what counts as continuing education and occupational programs, depending on the campus, these offerings include job and workforce training, courses or workshops required by employers, and personal enrichment courses. These features demonstrate how these universities support their regional economies.

Table 2
Source: Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS)


As the Biden administration and state policymakers consider policy solutions to stimulate economic development and local communities during and after the pandemic, including public universities that also serve as their region’s community college will broaden and deepen those policies’ impact. For many prospective students, geography and proximity matter. If there is not an accessible college within driving distance, many students simply do not enroll in college. For a large share of these students, they also either have no interest in distance or online education, lack access to broadband internet, and/or face other technological challenges (e.g., access to a computer) that do not allow for online learning.

We do not mean to imply that these traditional, four-year, public universities are equivalent to community colleges or that they serve the same missions. Community colleges’ missions are unique and critical and the services they offer their local communities are irreplaceable and distinct. Instead, we are suggesting that if the intent of the policy is to develop local communities, create jobs, provide training, and the like, focusing only on defined community colleges will leave many communities unaffected and diminish the overall effect of the policy. Instead, by moving beyond the traditional sector definitions to the specific institutional characteristics the policymakers are interested in strengthening, many more communities will be impacted, and the overall effect of the policy will be expanded, helping ensure a robust economic recovery.

David A. Tandberg, Ph.D., senior vice president for policy research and strategic initiatives, State Higher Education Executive Officers Association

Cecilia M. Orphan, Ph.D., director of partnerships, Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges, and assistant professor, higher education, Morgridge College of Education, University of Denver

Alisa Hicklin Fryar, Ph.D., director of data, Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges, and professor of political science, University of Oklahoma




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