09/28/2015 08:02 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2016

Higher Education: Starting Your Economic Engines

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There is often a debate on American college campuses about the role of the university as a catalyst in the economic development of its region.

Some argue persuasively that the university is an educational institution and should not be expected to divert its resources to build the local economy. Others also make the case that American colleges and universities contribute by preparing a workforce to compete globally, develop products and new technologies, and create an educated citizenry. A few more point out that higher education contributes taxes, tourism, and countless volunteer hours to support its region.

On the other side, cash-strapped municipalities have tried repeatedly to force colleges and universities within their jurisdiction to pay "their fair share." What this means is seldom defined. But it is difficult to argue from behind an expanse of well-manicured green lawns that local cities and towns should not be compensated, for example, for police and fire protection. As a result, many higher education institutions have elected individually or through negotiated consortial agreements to pay the equivalent of PILOT's (payment-in-lieu of taxes).

Like basic education, American colleges and universities receive their tax-exempt status because society deems them to be a public good. They educate students and American society, in turn, welcomes a trained, educated competitive workforce without the need to develop a massive, centralized federal system of higher education comparable to most post industrial nations.

The system is highly imperfect and often works against itself providing obstacles to a common educational pathway, gross inefficiencies and duplicated services, and heightened consumer angst over sticker price, quality, access, and employable graduates. Yet higher education remains the envy of the world despite its obvious flaws.

These same pressures also create a growing need for American colleges and universities to demonstrate their value proposition. Going to college is often an expectation but never a guaranteed right for citizens so long as the education comes at some cost. For many Americans, colleges must now look beyond the value of educating some citizens to demonstrate their value to society as a whole.

As such, it's important not to bury the lead. American higher education is part of a continuous pathway for Americans that opens potential and possibility. It remains the best safeguard to a robust middle class. If higher education expands access and choice - as well as diversity in all its forms - it is a safety value to ensure that a democratic society endures.

Yet on a local level colleges and universities find it more difficult to make the global arguments stick and resonate in town/gown settings. It's no longer enough to produce 4-color glossy economic impact studies demonstrating the very real, documentable contributions that a college makes to the local economy. Even PILOT payments for services like police and fire now seem more like expectations these days.

It is time for higher education institutions to rethink their role in the region. In fact, they are already major employers and an economic catalyst, regardless of scale. Further, there is a symbiotic relationship between American colleges and their localities.

The question is how best for colleges to capitalize on local relationships, building a case for their value by getting past the rancor of brittle, pointless internecine skirmishes over the size of the PILOT payment.

The fact is that American colleges and universities are economic drivers. In the most obvious cases - Boston, the Bay Area, Austin, and the Research Triangle to name a few - the advantages are clear as these regions link their economies to the "eds and meds" environment. But the same conditions apply almost everywhere - shaped by the state of the local economy and the scale of the higher education institutions within the region.

Higher education critics on campus will complain that they are not larger-scaled research institutions. Yet in doing so they miss the point. Economic development is complex and can take a variety of forms.

Think of a college as an intersection of people, programs and facilities.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • What contributions, including volunteerism, do faculty, staff and students make to their region? Do they help staff non-profits? In rural areas, for example, do they fill out the ranks of the EMT and volunteer fire brigades?
  • What academic programs benefit from local involvement? Do science and social science programs work on improving the local environment, health care, the transportation network, and social service delivery to citizens in explicit ways while also linking academic programs to the college's strategic plan?
  • Are these programs in partnership with other large-scale economic drivers?
  • Is the strategic plan a regional plan that relates higher education to the "neighborhood" in which it lives with definable metrics?
  • Do academic programs have a "clinical" component, where practical, that also ties a college's alumni and career counseling network to local employment growth?
  • Is the campus master plan a regional master plan that identifies college "community" assets and looks for public/private partnerships to develop them?

The answers provide direction on the role of American colleges and universities in their region. Maybe its time to celebrate, better define, and look for partnerships - and the fresh thinking and additional resources that come with them - to make the case for higher education locally.