We develop a new dataset using UNESCO source materials on the location of nearly 15,000 universities in about 1,500 regions across 78 countries, some dating back to the 11th Century. We estimate fixed-effects models at the sub-national level between 1950 and 2010 and find that increases in the number of universities are positively associated with the future growth of GDP per capita (and this relationship is robust to controlling for a host of observables, as well as unobserved regional trends). Our estimates imply that a 10% increase in a region’s number of universities per capita is associated with 0.4% higher future GDP per capita in that region. Furthermore, there appear to be positive spillover effects from universities to geographically close neighboring regions. We show that the relationship between GDP per capita and universities is not simply driven by the direct expenditures of the university, its staff and students. Part of the effect of universities on growth is mediated through an increased supply of human capital and greater innovation. Furthermore, we find that within countries, higher historical university presence is associated with stronger pro-democratic attitudes.
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