Colleges and Universities: Catalysts for Community Improvement

Significant research has been done to examine the social and economic impact of institutions of higher learning on their surrounding communities. Colleges and universities create jobs and add to the local economy through the purchase of goods and services. Many institutions engage in community service projects that benefit the community and make investments in area real estate. Colleges and universities can also serve as social hubs for the external neighborhood and offer unique cultural and educational experiences, which may not be available otherwise.

While most colleges and universities have an impact on their respective communities, this impact can vary greatly based on where the institution is located - whether it is urban or rural, established or emerging. Urban campuses are unique in the sense that the city develops around them compared to traditional college towns in which the neighborhood is dedicated to the institution.

Saint Peter's University is located in Jersey City, N.J., which is just minutes away from Manhattan on the other side of the Hudson River. During the past quarter century, Jersey City has experienced significant economic growth particularly along the waterfront. Growth has been slower in neighborhoods beyond the waterfront, such as the McGinley Square area where Saint Peter's is located. Saint Peter's was able to leverage its significant history in the area and its Jesuit heritage to serve as a catalyst for improvement in the community and beyond.

Unfortunately, New Jersey is one of the biggest exporters of college students and many of these students don't return and instead buy homes, start businesses and raise their families outside the Garden State. However, Saint Peter's continues to attract the majority of its students from New Jersey. And the University's well-prepared alumni overwhelmingly choose to call the Garden State home. The financial power of these graduates affects nearly every aspect of the state economy.

Beyond the economic impact of its alumni, Saint Peter's is an economic driver in itself. The University is making an indelible impact in New Jersey and its surrounding communities as it employs more than 500 individuals and has an economic impact of more than $400,000,000.

The University also attracts significant amounts of funding from corporations and foundations in the form of grants to support community assistance projects, academic research and other initiatives. Organizations such as Big Brother Big Sisters and United Way are already making a tremendous impact in the community surrounding Saint Peter's and the University has partnered with and sponsored these organizations and other area non-profits. The missions of many of these organizations are aligned with that of Saint Peter's and a combination of efforts can often serve as a recipe for success.

Saint Peter's has taken partnership a step further with one particular non-profit organization, Rising Tide Capital. In 2013 Saint Peter's partnered with Rising Tide Capital to develop the Ignite Institute at Saint Peter's University, an institution which provides thought leadership, academic research and direct educational service for local entrepreneurs. Rising Tide Capital is a non-profit organization whose mission is to assist struggling individuals and communities to build strong businesses, which transform lives, strengthen families, and build sustainable communities. This unique model of a partnership between a non-profit and a university has proven to yield mutually beneficial results.

Small businesses play an integral role in economic success, particularly in working class, urban communities. Through the Ignite Institute, Saint Peter's students are involved in a Microbusiness Consulting Program. Students are partnered with entrepreneurs, mostly women and minorities, in underserved areas of the city. Examples of businesses involved in the program include a music studio, a natural body product producer, contractor, a marketing firm, jewelry makers, a green printing business and a doll maker, among others.

This program enables students to gain real-life experience assisting small, local businesses in a variety of roles. It also facilitates real world skills development and applications of academic work for students while simultaneously providing much-needed assistance to local entrepreneurs who are highly focused on the day-to-day business operations, but not overall marketing strategy.

Beyond local entrepreneurship, the Ignite Institute is also involved in analyzing how goods and services used by the institution can be locally sourced. Small changes in a university's supply-chain using local goods and services can have a tremendous impact on the community overall.

The Ignite Institute is not the only organization on campus serving as a catalyst for community improvement. The Campus Kitchen at Saint Peter's University was established in September 2014. It is a community service program that seeks to save food that would otherwise be wasted from dining halls, local grocery stores, restaurants and more and in turn is used to create nutritious meals for those struggling with hunger. The Campus Kitchen at Saint Peter's served 10,113 meals in its first year and currently seeks to expand. The value of The Campus Kitchen can be seen within the community as it engages the local food suppliers in a community service project that benefits the overall neighborhood.

By nature, colleges and universities have an impact on their respective communities and this impact may be needed in some communities more than others. The initiatives currently taking place at Saint Peter's University can serve as a model for other urban institutions looking to bring their economic and social investment in an area to the next level. These programs not only serve the individuals who are recipients of these programs, but they also benefit the students who develop lasting relationships with members of the community and a true concern and deep understanding for community improvement.