The Impact of Universities at a Local, Regional, and Global Level

Students at the University of Pennsylvania started moving in earlier this week, and by early next week classes will have started and the campus will be in full swing again. As a resident of University City and the parent of a rambunctious two-year-old, the Penn campus is a wonderful resource to have within close walking distance. In a recent Instagram post, I jokingly thanked Penn for spending millions of dollars a year to provide my son with a place to play with his Matchbox cars. But there is an important truth in this, which is that schools invest heavily in their campuses, which then become beloved amenities to the surrounding neighborhood.

Picture by InSapphoWeTrust

Of course, universities aren’t always thought of as great neighbors, and not without reason: everyone who lives near a college campus has a story about public drunkenness or rampant trash. But there’s a lot of good that comes to a campus’ immediate surroundings. A neighbor of mine recently lamented the impending start of the school year, saying all the great restaurants he’d had to himself all summer would soon be overrun with students, to which I replied: “What restaurants would be here if it weren’t for the students?  They’re not mooching off of us; we’re mooching off of them!” Indeed, having great commercial districts is a huge quality of life perk for an urban neighborhood, and the area around the Penn campus is hard to beat because of the quantity and diversity of choices that can be supported by the Penn community. Suffice to say there would be way fewer merchants and way less vitality in my neighborhood if Penn (and CHOP and Drexel and University of the Sciences) wasn’t also here.

Our work telling the economic and social impact story for universities has taken us all over the country. Just in the past year, we’ve had the pleasure of coming alongside institutions in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and of course Philadelphia. While the schools, their philosophies, and their host communities vary greatly, there are a number of recurring themes which I can bear personal witness to given where I live. As mentioned above, the growing push to invest in attractive campuses and facilities holds great benefit for local residents, who can enjoy green space, recreational facilities, and cultural programming, often at no cost. And, the demand represented by students and employees supports vibrant retail corridors and keeps merchants in business. In fact, schools are increasingly attuned to the role their operations can play in providing inclusive economic opportunities for their host communities, and their initiatives to promote local hiring and local sourcing which translates into jobs for local residents and business for local vendors.

Of course, universities play a tremendous role at a regional and global level, too. In our modern knowledge economy, metro areas rise and fall based on their ability to attract and grow innovation activity, and universities serve as literal anchors for the kinds of innovation ecosystems that are most successful in drawing in human and financial capital and in producing scientific discoveries and commercial ventures. Pulling the lens back even further, universities are leading the way on society’s biggest challenges, like how to make our economies more inclusive and our workers more competitive, or how to beat Alzheimer’s and cancer.

I look forward to the day we break through on these and other issues. Maybe my two-year-old will be involved! (Penn Class of 2037?) Closer to home and closer to the present, even he knows at his young age that college campuses can be good things for the neighbors.

To learn more about the services we provide to universities, check out our new ebook on measuring the impact of anchor institutions.


Lee Huang is a Senior Vice President and Principal at Econsult Solutions, and is also on the boards of the Asian-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, and Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians.

Share This