5 Ways Educational Anchor Institutions Can Catalyze Economic Recovery

A building with stairs and people outside.
Above: City College of San Francisco Student Success Center.

As cities struggle to recover from COVID impacts and a rapidly restructuring economy, conversations around economic recovery have focused on office, retail, and residential sectors. However, one potentially impactful partner deserves more attention: educational anchor institutions.

With their significant assets and resources, educational anchors are poised to offer relief and creative partnerships for their cities. Unlike businesses, which can relocate when their priorities shift, anchor institutions are typically rooted in the community through real estate and community-serving missions, making them an important player in the local economy.

In addition to driving opportunity for students and their families, educational anchor institutions can provide significant multiplier effects to their local economies. With a focus on their anchor mission, colleges and universities can boost the benefits they provide to their local economies — from aligning academics and career counseling with business needs, to local hiring and purchasing, and housing and other development projects supporting local community goals.

College, university, and government leaders and their architects and planners can all help multiply the economic impact of educational anchor institutions when we understand and promote their larger anchor mission. Here are five ways colleges and universities hold the key to strengthening the economy and transforming their communities:

1. Building Skills for the Economy of the Future

The nature of work is changing and so are the skills needed. For example, climate action is driving a shift toward electrification and technology companies are reinvesting in manufacturing to provide components for the digital economy. Our economy needs both innovators and skilled workers, particularly those with some college, but not necessarily a four-year degree. The skills gap is estimated to grow to over 1.5 million in California by 2030, representing both a drag on the economy and lost opportunity for workers in need of living wage jobs.

California community colleges are the ideal partners to address the skills gap, but their enrollment is declining, and completion rates are low. Recent studies show that just one in four institutions is currently in dialogue with business leaders to understand what skills are in demand. However, some leading institutions are partnering with the business community, designing curricula, and advising students to help them align their studies with good jobs after graduation, as well as adding facilities with specialized space designed to boost student success.

A large building with a statue in front of it.
The City College of San Francisco is building a new Student Success Center designed to boost enrollment and completion. The project is designed to be a highly visible gateway building located near transit, inviting students to explore their future possibilities in a welcoming facility that is a one-stop shop for over 30 supportive programs, including academic counseling, tutoring, financial aid, a career center, a transfer center, etc. Improved access to supportive services is key to increasing and maintaining future enrollment.
A group of people in an academic space.
Gavilan College is another great example of partnership, as they are building a new satellite campus in San Benito County to support local economic development with academic programs and student career pathways that are being crafted to align with the needs of area employers. The Gensler design includes academic space together with student services, counseling, drop in workspace, a food pantry, a community “living room,” and science labs. This new learning and community hub embodies economic opportunities in Hollister, California.

2. Attracting Talent and Hiring Locally

Higher education institutions drive economic growth by attracting talent and fostering new business creation. Based on PitchBook’s 2020 University Rankings, Stanford and UC Berkeley are world leaders in new business startups that receive venture funding. Between 2006 and 2020, UC Berkeley launched over 1,200 startups that garnered over $36 billion in venture funding.

A group of people in a room.
UC Berkeley is constructing a new facility called the Gateway building, designed by Gensler + Weiss Manfredi Architects as design architects, to boost innovation by bringing people together in an environment designed to promote cross-disciplinary collaboration. The facility will house a new college for Computing, Data Science, and Society.

Hiring is another way educational anchors contribute to the economic health of their regions. In the Bay Area, UC San Francisco (UCSF) is the largest public employer, with over 34,000 workers, followed by the City and County of San Francisco. UC Berkeley ranks third, with over 24,000 employees in the area. As part of their anchor mission, UCSF has committed to hiring 10% of new employees each year from underserved communities, removing hiring barriers, and investing in workforce development to create greater economic opportunity for the local community.

3. Affirmative Procurement Supports Local Businesses

Colleges and universities have sizable economic impact, spending over $500 billion on goods and services annually. Communities benefit when that spending is directed towards the local economy, including small and diverse businesses, as it creates multiplier effects and enables wealth to accumulate locally. This is especially important now, as the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionally impacted small and diverse businesses.

UC Davis Health (UCDH) has developed a comprehensive Anchor Institution Mission (AIM) focused on hiring, procurement, investment, and volunteering to improve community health and address racial and economic inequities. For example, UCDH has increased the hospital’s proportion of food from local vendors from 16.5% in 2016 to 40% in 2019, supporting local businesses while focusing on healthy, fresh food.

4. Building Affordable Housing

Colleges and universities that build affordable student housing relieve pressure on local housing markets, while making college more affordable. This is an urgent priority in California, as a recent study found that one in 20 students at University of California (UC), one in 10 students at California State University (CSU), and one in five students at California Community Colleges (CCC) are experiencing homelessness each year.

To help jump-start new student housing at all levels of the California public university system, Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 169 into effect in 2021, providing $2 billion over three years to build affordable student housing across the state, and establishing these institutions as active partners in urban development and construction. This targeted investment is a win-win for colleges and their communities.

A group of people outside a building.
To help colleges and universities win grant funding for new student housing, Gensler develops concept designs and feasibility studies, such as this one for Merced College in Merced, California. This 28-bed student housing development provides safe, affordable rental housing for students in the Agricultural Science program. With a focus on student success, the design includes spaces for community gathering, group study, tutoring, food pantry, and counseling.

5. Catalyst for Urban Revitalization

Educational anchors help catalyze economic recovery by attracting people and resources to the neighborhoods they inhabit. Once imagined as cloistered places separate from the city, colleges and universities are now actively seeking out synergies with their surrounding communities. Campus edges have become more permeable, and many campus buildings are designed to invite engagement with students and business collaborators, as well as the general public. Satellite facilities remote from existing campuses could play a role in future city planning and design.

A group of people walking around a building.
This image represents a design prototype for community embedded research space. It has been developed as an urban field station for climate research and community engagement. The modular design enables research facilities to be embedded in places where environmental monitoring and community education would be beneficial. This concept extends the educational anchor mission to engage a broader set of participants.

With intentional planning and coordination with others, educational anchors can multiply the benefit they provide to surrounding communities — educating and creating opportunity for students and their families while boosting economic output by attracting talent, launching new businesses, hiring locally, engaging in socially responsible procurement, and developing housing and other shared community assets.

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Sandy Mendler
Sandy is an architect, planner, and researcher focused on creating inspiring new models for healthy, sustainable living. As the Education Practice Area Leader for Gensler’s Northwest region, she focuses on the design of vibrant facilities for schools, colleges, and universities that build community, promote collaboration, advance research, and support student-centered experiential learning. Sandy is based in San Francisco. Contact her at .