Public universities and human capital development in the United States

Moira O’Neill, Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Public colleges and universities play an important role in the formation of human capital through the attraction, training, and often local–regional retention of students. Much of the existing research on the subject examines one stage in this process, one type of institution, and/or one type of regional environment. While such studies can generate important insights, taking too narrow a perspective on one or more of these elements can lead to distortions about the impact of institutions of higher learning on the regions they serve. This paper adds to the literature by (1) widening the temporal frame of analysis to include the student’s journey from hometown to campus and then to additional locations 10 years after graduation, and (2) by deepening the cross-sectional view of a region’s layered institutions to include the many different types of public higher education and the variety of human capital they support. Data from 64 institutions spread across 10 labor market regions under the State University of New York show how institution type corresponds to (1) the geography of populations served, (2) the nature of skills and training supplied, and (3) local/regional retention a decade later. The empirical study also identifies the extent to which factors such as regional variation, degree level, and students’ program of study associate with human capital development (e.g., wages, retention) and therefore contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the broader relationship between institutions of higher learning and local/regional human capital formation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)733-751
Number of pages19
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • Human capital
  • Program of study
  • Public universities
  • Retention
  • Wages

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development


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