Universities are Important Engines for Equitable Growth

Many cities that had to swim against the tide of economic decline for the entire second half of the previous century are now faced with a different but no less difficult problem, which is to figure out how to achieve growth that benefits all people. With significant economic success seems to come crushing inequity, persistent poverty, and an inability for gains to be shared broadly. What can be done? Solutions will necessarily have to be multi-dimensional in nature, but one essential ingredient is a city’s universities.

Higher education is under great scrutiny right now, in large part because of today’s focus on equity. Soaring tuitions and dwindling financial aid funds threaten to make a traditional four-year degree inaccessible to all but the very affluent. Localities struggling with stagnant revenues and rising costs are wondering aloud about why universities seemingly flush with resources are tax-exempt.  From a political and social perspective, even the notion of having a high-ranking university pedigree and taking pride in that institution can be viewed with scorn as being “elitist.”

These are valid critiques for which higher education institutions must have an acceptable response. But it is important to understand that the things that universities focus on – teaching, research, and service – can make for a more and not less equitable society. Indeed, universities cannot truly claim to be fulfilling their core missions if they are not making their economies and communities more equitable in the process. Three examples from institutions ESI has recently done work for prove this out:

Equitable access to a college degree. Morgan State University makes higher education more affordable and accessible, and produces high-quality graduates in fields’ key to the future competitiveness of the Baltimore and Maryland economies. Morgan trains future workers in demanding STEM fields that are critical in today’s knowledge-based economy. They also work hard to provide on-ramps to higher education for underserved populations such as minorities, low-income and first-generation college students. As a result, Morgan offers a compelling value proposition to students and society. Read more on ESI’s report on the Economic Impact of Morgan State University here.

Innovation benefits every corner of the world. University of Delaware has become a laboratory of innovation for the state of Delaware, with profound implications for both society as a whole and individual communities throughout the First State. Whether scientific breakthroughs, tech start-ups, or neighborhood solutions, University of Delaware is birthing innovations that make the state and its communities more economically competitive and socially vibrant. To learn more about University of Delaware’s economic and social value click here.

Outside spending supports Main Street. University of Notre Dame draws significant activity into the South Bend-Elkhart region. It attracts students from around the world, and its campus also plays host to millions of sports fans, event attendees, tourists, prospective students, and visitor of students every year. This supports everyday jobs at restaurants, hotels, and retail stores throughout the region. Read more on ESI’s report on University of Notre Dame’s annual economic impact within the region here.

Here in Philadelphia and in communities around the country, higher education institutions are investing in and engaging with their immediate surroundings in mutually beneficial ways. They are producing massive amounts of purchasing power, which supports merchants and jobs in a wide range of sectors. And their core functions of credentialing students and performing research are increasingly fulfilled with equitable outcomes – who participates, who benefits – in mind. Equitable growth is a noble but difficult objective to achieve. Cities that are successful will surely be tapping into their higher education institutions to play an important part in that success.



Lee Huang Lee Huang, M.P.A., Senior Vice President & Principal of ESI, brings over 20 years of experience in economic development to his public, private, institutional, and not-for-profit clients. Mr. Huang has led consulting engagements in a wide range of fields including higher education, economic inclusion, historic preservation, neighborhood economic development, and more. Mr. Huang earned a Masters of Public Administration from the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also received certificates in Public Finance and in Economic Development and Growth.

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