The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 29, 2015

How can cities, hospitals, and universities better partner to boost inclusive growth?

As cities shake off the worst of the recession, many still struggle with a range of challenges that limit economic growth. Local governments are forced to confront issues such as deepening poverty with constrained budgets and limited state and federal support.

Cities need partners to address these challenges. Colleges, universities, and hospitals—so-called anchor institutions—serve as engines of innovation and growth for local and regional economies. But anchors and city leadership are not always in tune with each other’s priorities and values, which puts a strain on collaboration. 

Today, the National Resource Network released Striking a (Local) Grand Bargain, which we wrote in partnership with Neil Kleiman at New York University’s Wagner School. Our new report suggests different approaches for   identifying the best ways to align cities and local anchors around shared interests and large-scale economic and community development.

After speaking with 40 experts, including university chancellors and presidents, hospital administrators, federal officials, foundation program officers, and academics, we developed a set of actionable recommendations for local leaders, anchor institutions, and philanthropy to spark and support mutually beneficial partnerships that promote local prosperity. Here are few of our key insights. 

Small and midsize cities show big promise

Smaller cities tend to have a greater connection to their anchor leadership. Modest size doesn’t always lead to stronger partnerships, but cities like Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Waco, Texas; and Kansas City, Kansas stand out when it comes to planning turnaround strategies jointly determined by an anchor institution and local leadership. In these smaller locales, the economic impacts were felt most immediately and clearly.

What triggered these partnerships? In these places and a few others we identified in our field review, severe economic distress was a major motivator for closer collaboration.

Hospitals and community groups should leverage the Affordable Care Act to drive investment tailored to specific community needs

With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, hospitals are changing the way they approach community engagement and economic development. The tax code now requires hospitals to engage with communities using measurable, evidence-based strategies, which opens up a wide range of possibilities such as improving housing conditions, expanding access to healthy food, and reducing air pollution. 

If the Internal Revenue Service clarifies that hospitals can claim proven community-building programs (like affordable housing interventions) on their 990s, by providing illustrative programs and approaches, that would go a long way toward expanding hospitals’ role as a partner in creating healthier communities.

Colleges should use data and engage local firms to help students build the skills and credentials employers need

This is an opportune time to use data strategically to improve student outcomes and regional economic development at the same time. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act encourages local stakeholder involvement and collaboration between education and workforce development systems, providing a foundation for meaningful connections between local high schools, institutions of higher education, and employers.

Four-year colleges can develop matriculation agreements to make it easier for community college students to transfer—and bring their credits along. Community colleges can help students make informed decisions about different educational and career pathways. Hospitals and health care institutions and technical and professional service employers in STEM fields can provide on-the-job training opportunities for students. And community colleges and universities can analyze and interpret local economic data to design strategies that both help students succeed and meet employers’ needs.

We need a paradigm shift

Let’s move away from the old frame of “town-gown,” which puts the onus on anchor institutions to manage relationships with surrounding communities. Instead, let’s adopt a new paradigm that assumes interests can be aligned and strengths leveraged. This type of approach may well lead to a healthier local economy and broader prosperity, especially for more vulnerable members of the community. 

In this photo taken Monday, April 20, 2015, a sidewalk leads to South Building on campus at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.