As the westernmost institution of the University of North Carolina System, Western
Carolina University holds many distinctions, not the least of which is anchor for
the respective surrounding communities and a regional driver for the local economy,
community service and workforce development.
The value of its weight was revealed in an analysis of 118 rural colleges and universities in 39 states that were surveyed by the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges, a national collaborative. The key areas of examination were how each higher education institution fosters access to postsecondary learning, supports local economies, addresses critical workforce shortages and contributes to public health needs.
WCU’s setting in Southern Appalachia, along with its proximity to a tribal entity, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, gives a deeper perspective on the dynamics of the region. The ARRC study helps reinforce how the university is an effective, efficient and engaged member of the broader community, whether defined by geography or demographics.
“Western Carolina University is the economic driver for our region,” said Nathan Ramsey, executive director of Land of Sky Regional Council, a multi-county planning and development organization based in Asheville. “As the regional comprehensive university for Western North Carolina, WCU is a critical partner in developing talent needed by local employers. Land of Sky Regional Council is honored to work closely with WCU on many different initiatives to make progress for the region from aging, workforce development, economic and community development and more.”
According to the study, rural public colleges are often the largest employers in their
communities. On average, this group of rural public colleges employed more than 500
people, not including third-party contractors. WCU employs 1,598 people, with 583
being faculty, and not counting temporary staff or adjunct professors.
In a commentary in the News & Observer of Raleigh, Chancellor Kelli R. Brown pointed out that WCU has an annual economic impact of more than $500 million in the 10 surrounding counties, while every taxpayer dollar invested to support operations at WCU is delivering a return of $5.40 in benefits back to the state.
In August 2020, Chancelor Brown announced that the university’s Office of Economic Development and Regional Partnerships would be charged with “engaging with community partners and developing specific mileposts to advance progress with these critical services. Because, to paraphrase former UNC President Bill Friday, Western is part of the ‘mighty engine’ of the UNC System that will bring prosperity to our region and our state.”
That office is headed by Rich Price ’88, who was hired in March. His priority is to develop a comprehensive economic strategy for the university that aligns with the current and future needs of the region.
“The mere presence of the university’s location in central Jackson County affords incredible economic benefits for the entirety of Western North Carolina, and our Asheville instructional facility further enhances our reach and our impact,” said Price. “There are many obvious ways that the university aids our communities and drives economic development. But I would also offer that there are some not so obvious opportunities to put WCU to work for the economic success of the region that people may not be as familiar with. Our primary goal is to leverage the assets and capacities of the university to improve economic conditions, and to do so by creating and maintaining external relationships that multiply our positive impacts on commerce and quality of life.”
In addition to institutional leadership, there are individual faculty and staff who play key roles within the community, Price said, citing Business North Carolina magazine’s inclusion of Brown in its Power List 2021, a compilation of the state’s most influential leaders.
According to the ARRC study, the top degrees awarded by rural public colleges align
with major industries in rural communities, including education, health professions,
business, hospitality and tourism, and natural resource management.
WCU conducted economic impact studies through the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise, which presented a town hall series on regional issues in May. Titled “Helping the Community Helps Your Campus: New and Replicable Ways Two University Centers are Impacting Their Communities,” it demonstrated the surprising ways geography creates economic and social division, and how university centers have used research to identify and address problems.
Additionally, the center formulated a means to bridge research and community with a simple three-part philosophy of “equip, connect and transform.”
“As the work of Steve Ha, professor of economics and a faculty affiliate of the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise, has shown, WCU is a hub of economic activity and creativity for the region,” said Sean Mulholland, professor of economics and the center’s associate director. “From the Rapid Center to the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, from the Corporation for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to the Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center, from the Millennial Initiative health clinics to WCU’s Cherokee Center, WCU collaborates with community partners to enhance the wellbeing of those who call Western North Carolina home.”
The shadow of COVID-19 permeates the ARRC study, which was released in January, the
deadliest month of the pandemic.
Throughout the health crisis, descriptive phrases like “front line worker” and “essential personnel,” came into prominence for uplifting those performing certain jobs. Likewise, WCU proved itself an “essential institution,” by opening a regional vaccination clinic in the Health and Human Sciences building in March, coming together to disseminate public health information related to vaccines.
Cortnee Lingerfelt, a physician assistant with WCU Health and Counseling Services, served as director of the university’s regional COVID-19 vaccine clinic. After helping Jackson County Department of Public Health clear its backlog of individuals awaiting the vaccine, the university’s vaccine clinic opened for the larger Western North Carolina region.
On a Sunday in March, the clinic partnered with Vecinos, a nonprofit health care organization that provides services to migrant and seasonal agricultural workers and their families, in a special effort to vaccinate 100 farmworkers from across the region. Community and campus volunteers with Spanish language abilities assisted.
By the time the regional clinic concluded, more than 15,000 people had been vaccinated – ranging from local residents to international visitors and people from other states. The WCU clinic turned out to be one of the most productive in the entire UNC System.
Roughly one-quarter of rural counties in the ARRC analysis were ranked near the bottom for health outcomes, with 41% of people in the counties reporting poor or fair health. One-quarter of the rural counties had a population-to-physician ratio below the state average, which creates barriers to adequate health care. Nearly a third of the rural counties have at some point been designated as medically underserved areas, which are geographic areas with a shortage of primary care health services, and 37% had a mental health professional shortage.
In light of existing public health challenges, ARRC reports rural counties will rely on anchor institutions for support, much like what already is happening with WCU’s free or low-cost clinics.
Pro bono physical therapy clinics, led by students in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program, expanded services to Asheville and now include nutrition needs and social work appointments via telehealth.
“WCU is the primary institution in the far western region of North Carolina and plays
a major role in the community and economic development of the region,” said Sarah Thompson MPA ’12 of the Southwestern Commission, a regional council of governments that serves as
a technical, economic and planning resource to local towns and counties. “Whether
through training future workers or partnering on initiatives to transform the economic
conditions of these rural communities, the university staff, faculty and students
add so much value to the social and intellectual capital of the far west.”
She also pointed out that Price, as a longtime resident and former local government leader, “understands the community and economic issues of WNC and how all of the various assets and challenges influence one another.”
The entrepreneurial spirit is borne out of the College of Business’ Innovation Leadership and Entrepreneurship Program.
“I would not be where I am if it wasn’t for Western. For where I was in my life, earning my master’s gave me confidence to be a business owner,” said Natalie Newman ’16 MS ’19, owner of Natalie Nicole’s Boutique in Sylva. “The local hospitality and hometown charm led me to wanting to locate my shop in Sylva. I stay in touch with my professors, so I feel like I have the support as I move forward.”
According to Robert Lahm, entrepreneurship professor and the program director while Newman attended, the curriculum focuses on coaching students to accomplish “just what Natalie has achieved – starting a business that meets multiple criteria in accordance with the individual’s goals. There is extensive work in developing instruction that is as hands-on and practical. Each course is regarded as building blocks where students develop parts of an overall portfolio of assets to launch and/or grow their own business.
“Entrepreneurship is a ‘labor of love’ for students and for faculty alike,” said Lahm. “It’s really icing on the cake when graduates like Natalie also decide to stay in the area, so when we drive by their business we might visit or just think, ‘keep on going for it.’”
The ARRC’s conclusion was that rural public colleges need federal funding to ensure
they can continue serving their students and providing vital services to respective
“Innovation and creative approaches are critical in tackling the economic concerns of the day, and WCU can play a pivotal role in leading those efforts,” Price said. “As our region is comprised of a number of microeconomies that have some similarity, while maintaining their unique character, it’s important for WCU to take a strategic and targeted approach to engaging with local governments, non-profits, civic organizations and industry leaders to improve our understanding of economic needs, and to forge a path for economic and community success.”
In light of public health challenges facing rural residents across the country, counties rely on anchor institutions like public colleges and universities for support. A key finding highlights the importance of public institutions of higher education in those communities, “while also demonstrating how COVID-19 threatens their contributions unless policymakers act swiftly to support them.” The nation’s rural public institutions can leverage their resources, talent and standing to elevate their community.
Tiffany Henry ’03 recently replaced Price as the Jackson County economic development director and previously was the head of the Small Business Center at Southwestern Community College. She explained the partnership among WCU, Jackson County and across the region is something that can’t be overstated.
“From providing support and research through their capstone programs, to product development assistance at the Rapid Center, internship opportunities are invaluable to our community,” she said. “Being an anchor institution in a rural economy that is broadly accessible and providing top of the line education continues to have a trickle-down impact on our rural economy.
“As an alumna, small business resource provider, small business owner and local economic developer, I’ve seen firsthand how WCU has impacted the region. It continues to serve as the economic hub and we’re grateful to their commitment to our region.”
From the locations of Cullowhee and Biltmore Park in Asheville, both tucked into the southern Blue Ridge Mountains, Price summarized that WCU finds itself not just as the farthest west of UNC System institutions, but “the driving force and the crucial connection for a better community.”