Universities Play a Vital Role in the U.S. Economy

Universities Play a Vital Role in the U.S. Economy
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When we tell our friends and relatives that we study the role of universities in economic development, we typically encounter furrowed brows. The idea that universities do anything other than teaching and research seems unfathomable, except perhaps during football season.

But public universities have long tended to the needs of their communities.

In recent weeks, more Americans have died from COVID-19 than the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 tragedies combined. Unemployment rates are skyrocketing, racial inequity still plagues the nation, and our climate is changing catastrophically.

Public universities have a critical role to play in combating all these challenges. As the value proposition of higher education comes under increased public scrutiny, embracing economic development is not only the right thing to do but also a way for institutions to enhance what they offer society.

When we say “economic development,” we don’t mean how universities are often the largest employers in their states; or how they draw visitors to college towns for conferences, events, and graduation ceremonies; or even how much they spend overall. These are traditional markers of “economic impact,” and valuable as they are, university-based economic development is a more intentional thing.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the University Economic Development Association have defined the ways in which higher education institutions contribute to economic development across three areas:

·      Talent and workforce development
·      Innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems
·      Place development through community partnerships.

These three facets of economic development help universities maximize the public value of their core mission of “teaching, research, and service.”

What sets a university apart is this unique amalgamation of knowledge creation, dissemination, and utilization that equate to an indispensable public value proposition. This framework was reflected in the theme chosen for the 2019 conference of the International Economic Development Council, the world’s largest professional body for economic developers: “talent, innovation, and place.

To implement the framework, APLU began awarding the Innovation and Economic Prosperity (IEP) designation to universities that had “demonstrated a meaningful, substantial, and sustainable commitment to university economic development” in the communities they serve. More than sixty-six institutions have received the IEP designation through an intensive focus on “talent, innovation, and place” activities.

Recently, these IEP universities leveraged this framework to support communities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as states cut funding due to declining revenues, students delay or cancel their enrollment, and questions arise about the viability of some institutions, public universities will experience pressure to cut back. Any such reductions in university efforts to engage in economic development activities would be shortsighted and counterproductive.

We spoke with the presidents of three distinct IEP-designated public universities (one urban serving/regional comprehensive, one land-grant institution, and one flagship university) to illustrate why public research universities need to strengthen their commitment to economic development, now more than ever.

Google, the Human Genome Project, Gatorade, and the iPhone all have roots traceable to university-born research – yet COVID-19 threatens the ability of students and faculty to pioneer their research beyond university walls.

The University of New Mexico has long been active in facilitating entrepreneurial opportunities for students, an objective that, this year, lent itself to addressing challenges brought on by the pandemic. Garnett Stokes, UNM’s president, described how, in the Lobo Rainforest Student Pitch Competition – which had to be conducted virtually in 2020 – a biochemistry graduate student, Amelia Bierle, “came up with a disinfectant that changed colors when the surface was fully saturated, indicating that the proper disinfection level had been achieved.” These entrepreneurial efforts were connected to other UNM pandemic-response efforts, such as innovations in personal protective equipment, many of which were distributed to underserved Native American communities.

Looking to the post-pandemic future, Stokes was optimistic about UNM’s commitment to innovation. “Our goal is to strengthen our ties with entrepreneurs in the community to create more start-up companies and commercialization of technology.”

In contrast to the conventional stereotype of universities as isolated “ivory towers,” economically engaged universities leverage their research and teaching missions to form reciprocal partnerships with communities.

California State University–Northridge’s immediate past president Dianne Harrison described a centerpiece COVID-era contribution to the greater Los Angeles community called Strength United, a center operated by CSUN’s Michael D. Eisner College of Education that provides assistance to residents affected by violence, sexual abuse, and trauma.

“The primary mission of CSUN is economic development,” Harrison told us. “CSUN really values the placemaking activities that focus on equity of opportunity, on service to our community, and that focus on social justice. For those who are in abusive households, the ‘safer at home’ orders from the governor really heightened their risk factors.” She added that “Strength United staff members were able to mobilize quickly to provide critically needed services to these individuals during this unprecedented pandemic.”

If an employer were to be asked about a university’s greatest contribution to the workforce, they likely would quip “graduation day.” Yet universities partner with employers, economic development organizations, and even K-12 districts to facilitate lifelong learning far beyond a standard college education.

When the pandemic struck the Fort Collins community’s K-12 school system, Colorado State University’s Campus Connections, a credit-bearing program that pairs CSU student mentors with at-risk youth in the area, sprang into action. CSU president Joyce McConnell spoke with pride about the way this mentorship program extended her university’s response to the needs of Colorado’s citizens during the pandemic. “We created teams that cut across areas of expertise and in ways that allowed us to be more innovative in the mentoring opportunities we provided as part of our talent development efforts,” she said. “We were particularly focused on teacher resilience in a time of crisis.”

As the examples highlighted in this article have shown, economic development is not an afterthought or “fourth mission” of the university. Rather, it is exactly how higher education should deepen its value proposition while maximizing the impact of its core research, teaching, and service missions.

As public higher education and state leaders look to the upcoming semester and post-COVID-19 economy, we hope, for the sake of our nation, that states and universities will strengthen the priority of university-based economic development.

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