Off Campus

December 17, 2010

For some universities, the global macro problems some students learn to combat -- economic stagnation, floundering education scores, racial inequality -- thrive just at the edge of campus.

A new report from the Democratic Collaborative at the University of Maryland at College Park looks at 10 "anchor universities" that have taken the lead in addressing these issues. One of its authors, Steve Dubb (the other is Rita Axelroth), discussed two universities that especially caught his attention as he conducted his research.

A project at the University of Pennsylvania, Dubb explained, has "over a period of 20 years ... targeted an increasing amount of their spending in seven zip codes to go from under 1 percent of spending -- or about $1 million -- to 13 percent of spending in 2009. That’s over $94.8 million million on office supplies -- all different types of equipment and products they purchase as an institution. It has had an obvious economic development impact on West and Southwest Philadelphia.”

Another initiative, adopted in the fall of 2009 at the University of Cincinnati, carved out $148.6 million of the university endowment for a five-year low-income real estate loan program. The university hopes both for economic gain and to improve the surrounding area.

The authors -- Dubb is Research Director at the Democratic Collaborative and Axelroth is an education consultant -- don’t stop at assessment of these kinds of programs, though. Their report proposes a larger mission for the "anchor institution" in many areas. The report emphasizes that universities would have to change from the ground up to support the efforts. Universities would need to be organized to make key decisions and have the money to support them, as well as to consider educational changes, such as requiring students to be involved in the local community. High-level administrative support is needed, the report argues.

It is a lot to ask of universities, especially given the shocks so many endowments have felt from the financial crisis, the report says. And offering loans to promote economic development may create risks.

The report also has numerous suggestions for how policies could encourage more universities to become "anchor" institutions. The government might sponsor a competitive grant program for universities, similar to Race to the Top, to funnel seed money or matching funds to promote local economic development. Other proposals include already up-and-running policy initiatives like the Obama administration’s Choice Neighborhoods and Promise Neighborhoods programs, which seek to revitalize public housing communities. As the last paragraph of the 221-page report puts it, “In short, the challenge remains broad.”

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