The Impact of Community Colleges on Rural Economies and Populations
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Economic activity in the United States continues to be spatially compressed into urban and suburban agglomeration economies. As a result of this spatial compression, rural economies across the United States are experiencing distance-based frictions that put them at a competitive disadvantage with their urban and suburban counterparts. This competitive disadvantage has led to a number of problems in rural communities, such as high unemployment, high poverty, and population loss. Policymakers, researchers, and other stakeholders in rural communities are exploring numerous measures to promote economic development in rural communities. There are many vital components to economic development. Scholars generally agree that adequate levels of local human capital must be in place before regional economic development can occur. Although human capital is widely believed to be a necessary component of economic development, there has been little research that has explored whether or not investments in higher education benefit rural economies and populations. Education in the rural setting is a complex issue. On the one hand, educational investments have the potential improve rural economies by increasing local human capital stock, which in turn leads to greater workforce productivity. On the other hand, without local employment opportunities, education is seen by many to funnel. This research uses two-stage least squares regression (2SLS) and fixed-effects with key slope dummy interaction terms measure whether rural counties with comprehensive community colleges experienced a comparative advantage in job growth, population growth, and poverty compared to counties without. Community colleges are unique as institutions of higher education because they generally provide open-door access to the general population and are designed to meet the needs of local economies. As such, their impact on rural economies should be an issue of public interest. This research finds that rural counties with community colleges have not experienced a discernible benefit in terms of employment growth or population growth in recent time panels and are associated with higher levels of poverty. The implications of these findings raise important questions about the state of rural economies and the ability of community colleges to catalyze economic development and population growth in rural communities.