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But do they need saving in the first place? The answer, it turns out, is no — at least in terms of institutional leadership and financial management. As scholars of higher education, we’ve been studying and advocating for regionals for the better part of a decade. And in contrast to the popular gloom-and-doom evaluation, we see a resilient, agile, and organizationally diverse sector — one that’s well positioned to help fight the pandemic, confront racial injustice, and drive economic mobility. If regionals need saving from anything, it’s bad public policy.
Our optimism begins with a rejection of the critics’ and observers’ most damning claim, which is that the entire sector is in financial peril. In research we conducted before the pandemic, we found little evidence of an existential threat. Looking at metrics including enrollment, revenues, costs, assets, debt, and credit ratings, we discovered only a few institutions facing severe financial problems; most were stable. To be clear, this stability is hard-earned, and the pandemic has undoubtedly made things harder. For instance, regionals are forced to be extremely lean in their operations, sometimes relying on one person to tackle critical tasks that other colleges assign to entire teams. As such sacrifices reveal, being stable and thriving are two different things.
We also reject the widespread view that regional public universities don’t have the brands or reputations needed to elicit strong demand. Regularly described as undistinguished, amorphous, and, as a prominent scholar once put it, having “a muddled institutional character,” regionals are frequently accused of failing to build strong brands. But these institutions are only identity-less to those dedicated to overlooking them. They have rich histories, cultures, and traditions. Their reputations, as regional institutions, are just that — regional. Students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members have no trouble recognizing these institutions, and they depend on them for access to affordable, high-quality degrees and good-paying jobs — the kind of opportunity that increases community and individual well-being.
Sure, some regionals lack national reputations — but that is generally because they have adhered to their place-based missions instead of chasing rankings. This nonlucrative mission-centeredness also means they are accustomed to innovating in the face of adversity. Freed from the constrictions of prestige-seeking, regionals focus on good teaching, local partnerships, and, as research indicates, making it easier for low-income and minority students to make it to and through college. In other words, the colleges’ laser focus on the local is a strength, not a liability.
In general, budget cuts across public higher education have disproportionately hurt regionals, which tend to rely more heavily on state funding and aren’t able to generate as much revenue from other sources. For example, research shows that regionals struggle to compete for private donations and are at a disadvantage in philanthropic networks compared with research universities. The average doctoral or flagship public research university raised $74 million in private donations in 2018, compared with $7.1 million, on average, at regionals. Over time, this leads to extreme endowment disparities. In North Carolina the endowment of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is bigger than the endowments of the other 15 public universities in the state combined.
On that already-uneven playing field, many regionals are forced to compete with one another for students because of bad public policy. In some cases, states have authorized new institutions or out-of-state providers to operate in the same area as regional public universities, while others have created performance-funding models that penalize the institutions serving students who face the greatest barriers to graduation. Public research universities are able to perpetuate their advantages by funneling their substantial resources into financial aid and into marketing, recruitment, and lobbying. They also often benefit from having alumni — keenly focused on their alma maters’ needs and desires — elected to serve in state houses. It is too easy to say that regionals are failing to compete. The reality is that they are doing all they can within systems that continually siphon resources elsewhere.
Stop treating regional publics like the higher-education equivalent of a wayward puppy in an ASPCA commercial.
So, here’s a radical proposition: Stop asking if regional public universities can survive; stop treating them like the higher-education equivalent of a wayward puppy in an ASPCA commercial. This narrative makes it all too easy to justify closing, merging, or narrowing the purpose of regional public universities because they “can’t be all things to all people.” Instead, lift up the strengths of these institutions and reiterate the many reasons policy makers and donors should follow MacKenzie Scott’s example and flood regional public universities with unrestricted resources.
Most immediately, regional public universities can play a bigger role in improving public health and helping to fight the pandemic, which has ravaged rural communities. Health professions are the second-most-common field of study at public regionals, and they train a significant number of nurses. Many have developed programs specifically designed to improve health care and tackle health disparities in rural areas through degree programs, research centers, and free or low-cost clinics. As we battle a deadly virus, regional public universities can be activated to help save lives.
We also should emphasize the role regional public universities play in serving underrepresented students. Unlike many nationally known colleges, where society’s elite cement their privilege, these are anchor institutions where many first-generation, low-income, and transfer students pursue higher education. By one estimate, nearly a third of HBCUs are regionals, and and another study showed 85 percent of Black students enrolled in public four-year institutions attend regional public universities. The same is true of 74 percent of Latinx students and 70 percent of Native American students. When states fail to support regional colleges, they also fail to serve these populations. Alternatively, investing in these institutions can make a significant difference in tackling longstanding racial and income-based inequities in access and degree attainment. Dismantling systemic racism in higher education should include equitably funding the institutions that serve students of color.
With commitments to accessibility, affordability, and supporting students who are less academically prepared, regionals play a critical role in promoting economic mobility. There are now several studies showing regional institutions transform the lives of low-income students, helping them graduate with a college degree and enter higher income brackets. Better support for regionals is an investment in building America’s middle class after the Great Recession and the economic devastation of Covid-19.
In many ways, regional public universities are irreplaceable infrastructure. Rather than ask if they can be saved, it would be more appropriate to reflect on the many ways in which they save the broader higher-education system from its own worst scourges. We have no doubt public regionals will endure our present crisis. But we’d much rather see them appropriately valued, both in terms of public discourse and — more important — in terms of resources.