The budget cuts now looming in this pandemic economy are poised to have an especially big impact on one group of colleges: public campuses that are regionally oriented. About 40 percent of the nation’s college students attend one of these campuses.
Regional colleges are especially reliant on state funds, tend to have limited pools of students from which to recruit, and don’t have access to the kinds of large research grants or wealthy donors that big research universities do. (Compare, for example, the endowments of Adams State University and the University of Colorado at Boulder: $64,000 versus $1.6 billion.)
What the nation’s 430 public regionals do best, says Cecilia Orphan,
an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Denver, is:
- Provide access to the students who live nearby and can’t go far away for college
- Contribute in deep ways to the health and vitality of their communities
The role of rural and regional colleges has been ignored for too long, Orphan says, and they deserve more support. Here are three things she emphasizes:
Just how intertwined the colleges and their communities are.
Regional colleges are often the largest employer. They tend to educate large numbers of local teachers and nurses. They focus their research on local problems. They serve as cultural centers, housing museums, offering performing arts
, and preserving local historical archives
But that’s not to say there aren’t tensions. Cultural divides sometimes develop when PhDs move in next to working-class residents, Orphan says. College presidents and their boards play critical roles in fostering healthy town-gown relations, but leaders can be hard to attract to rural colleges and hard to keep. Regional colleges need to be especially intentional about developing relationships with local residents, Orphan says. Those connections matter a lot more than they do in bigger towns and cities.
Regional colleges serve states in ways flagships don’t.
Orphan tells the story of being at a conference in Oregon and hearing a state lawmaker question whether, at some point, it still made sense for his state to pay for a public university in some of its more rural regions. Then, she says, in almost the same breath, he went on to mention how many out-of-state students the University of Oregon
Policymakers will look at regional colleges and focus on whether, and how much, enrollments are declining, she says. But they won’t think much about the contributions those colleges make to their communities or how shutting down those campuses would close off the only college options many of their citizens have. And, if places like the University of Oregon are serving more out-of-state students, Orphan adds, isn’t there a case to be made that maybe the state is overfunding the flagship?