We exploit historical natural experiments to test whether universities increase economic mobility and equality. We use "runner-up’" counties that were strongly considered to become university sites but were not selected for as-good-as-random reasons as counterfactuals for university counties. University establishment causes greater intergenerational income mobility but also increases cross-sectional income inequality. We highlight four findings to explain this seeming paradox: universities hollow out the local labor market and provide greater opportunities to achieve top incomes, both of which increase cross-sectional inequality, and increase educational attainment and connections to high-SES people, which prevent inequality from perpetuating into intergenerational immobility.
We investigate how the presence of a college affects local educational attainment using historical natural experiments in which "runner-up" locations were strongly considered to become college sites but ultimately not chosen for as-good-as-random reasons. While runner-up counties have since had opportunity to establish their own colleges, winners are still more likely to have a college today. Using this variation, we find that winning counties today have college degree attainment rates 58% higher than runner-up counties and have larger shares of employment in high human capital sectors. These effects are not driven primarily by college employees, migration, or local development.