In many rural communities across the country, public and land-grant institutions are the lifeblood of the local and regional economies, often employing more than 20 percent of a town’s population. From Corvallis, OR to Ithaca, NY, the “eds and meds” institutions have proved resilient to economic shocks over the past several decades, providing isolated stability in rural regions that have been in economic decline since the mid-20th century.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has rattled institutions of higher education. As universities slash spending, the economic effects ripple far and wide into the community. Public and land-grant universities are no exception. However, these research universities possess unique assets that can help mitigate the pandemic’s economic blows. These universities bring in state and federal funding for research, possess deep pools of human capital, and their graduates tend to find jobs locally or regionally. The pandemic has presented opportunities for universities to double-down on leveraging their innovation assets, as well as attract a newly mobile workforce looking to relocate from larger cities on the country’s coasts.
The Center for Regional Economic Advancement (CREA) convened university and town leadership from across the country, and national thought leaders on economic development and innovation at the event “The Post-Pandemic Future of College Towns: Leveraging Innovation and Entrepreneurship.” The event’s goal was to discuss strategies for building both economic resilience and diversification in college towns.
Research universities play a key role in supporting new startups and innovation, and their students have an opportunity to benefit from increased innovation and job growth stemming from university activity. Roundtable discussions with university administrators, entrepreneurs, government employees and other stakeholders in college towns from across the country resulted in the following sets of recommendations.
Establish a local university-to-workforce pipeline: Justin Streuli of UNC Greensboro and Derek Eberhart of the University of Georgia emphasized the important role universities play in feeding the regional entrepreneurship system. Universities should encourage students to start businesses and work for startups by increasing student exposure to startups, and creating more opportunities for students to work with new startups. University career service centers can help make these connections.
Retain graduates and attract remote workers: A key advantage that public and land-grant universities have is their ability to retain their graduates. A 2018 EMSI study found that “state university graduates stay within state lines with an average distance of 330 miles from their alma mater, and 40% are within 50 miles of the university.” As for remote workers, Texas Tech University's Kimberly Gramm discussed how colleges and town development agencies need to tell a compelling story about living in rural communities. Lower property prices, access to university resources, and natural surroundings can help sell remote workers on a rural college town. Clearly describing steps that the area is taking to improve resources such as public transportation and broadband access can also entice potential residents.
Actively work to diversify businesses: Universities should focus work to include low-income students, underrepresented minorities, and women in their entrepreneurship programs, and actively seek out partnerships with businesses-owned and operated by members of these groups.
Take advantage of state and federal funds designated for entrepreneurs and mobilize university lobbying power to advocate for additional funding: Justin Streuli discussed the One NC Small Business Fund, which provides a partial match to small businesses who receive SBIR or STTR. Entrepreneurs should seek out similar programs in their state or locality, and university innovation centers should serve as information hubs for these types of grants. Universities, with their significant lobbying power, should actively work to increase the amount of government funding designated for these purposes over the next several months by supporting bills such as the New Business Preservation Act.
Integrate community-engaged learning into a university’s economic development agenda. Many institutions do not take advantage of the full suite of opportunities better link a university’s economic development and community-engaged learning initiatives. Basil Safi and Amanda Wittman at Cornell University facilitated break-out sessions to discuss embedding student opportunities into existing innovation efforts, research and/or teaching agendas. Cornell University is in the process of launching a new faculty working group on “Engaging the Arts and Humanities in Entrepreneurship” to advance this community-engaged learning approach.
Identifying a town or region’s unique capabilities for strategic diversification means the economic benefits of an educational institution in a small town can stretch beyond local spending done by students, faculty, and staff, as it increases the role of universities and colleges as key assets for building new employers in the region, and a talent pool for those new or growing industries.