The Connection Between Higher Ed and Economic Development in North Carolina

April 9, 2015 by Emsi Burning Glass

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North Carolina’s economy used to be so tied to annual crop yields that, on bad harvest years, jobs were few and far between. Now, in addition to its strong agricultural economy, North Carolina is home to Research Triangle Park, where universities share workspace and ideas with more than 200 companies with expertise in microelectronics, telecommunications, biotechnology, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and environmental sciences. The Park is just one key example of how the power of higher education, collaboration, and thought leadership can strengthen a region’s economy—and it doesn’t stop there.

In North Carolina (and elsewhere), colleges and universities contribute tremendously to economic growth and regional prosperity, primarily through their roles in research, fostering human capital, and creating a skilled workforce. This in turn leads to more jobs, increased business efficiency, richer community engagement, more business startups, a greater availability of public investment funds, and eased tax burdens.

Earlier this year, EMSI conducted a statewide Economic Impact Study of North Carolina’s 110 public and private colleges and universities, as well as an individual study for each institution. With an economic impact of $63.5 billion, it’s no wonder there’s been so much positive attention in the press for higher education’s contribution to economic development in North Carolina.

Here’s a summary of what’s been written.

Higher Ed Raises the Skill of the Labor Force

The cultivation and creation of new talent, driven by research and learning at colleges and universities, leads to entrepreneurial innovation and draws established businesses to the region. The Herald Sun quotes Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, saying in a briefing about the impact study, “Talent is the driver that decides where projects go. Raleigh without [Research Triangle] Park and the park’s ability to attract talent that came out of the university systems would look a lot like Tallahassee, as opposed to Richmond or Atlanta.”

Mary K. Grant and David O. Belcher, the chancellors of UNC Asheville and Western Carolina University, respectively, and Dennis F. King, the president of Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College, published an editorial in the Citizen Times that reflects on how talent cultivation translates to economic development:

“What we do at our public universities and community colleges is of tremendous economic benefit to our state and our region….

Education is a launching pad for our region’s entrepreneurs. It is an important factor in attracting new businesses and creating new jobs here. Our campuses are integral to the arts, music, and literature scenes in Western North Carolina. We provide education and training that support our workforce, from health care, aviation, advanced manufacturing, and technology to our nationally renowned restaurants, hotels, and breweries. Our faculty are researching cancer cures; our students give back to the region through community engagement and service learning; our alumni are the area’s teachers and an important part of the region’s high-quality health care….

An investment [in public education] comes with a high rate of return, whether it’s measured in dollar amounts of economic impact or the impact that our students, alumni, faculty and staff have on this community. We are the public higher education institutions of Western North Carolina, supporting the region now and building toward our future prosperity.”

Higher Ed Enriches Communities and Local Economies

In an article that argues the city’s four higher ed institutions “enhance the flavor of the community but don’t swallow it,” The Salisbury Post writes that Salisbury, North Carolina, is “A Different Kind of College Town.” Catawba College, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, Livingstone College, and Hood Theological Seminary are all located in Salisbury.

In the context of EMSI’s economic impact study, the article says that the four colleges drive the city’s tourism industry, and GED and personal enrichment classes offer opportunities for community members to develop new skills and improve their businesses at a low cost.

A number of community leaders praise the role that higher education has played in local economic development. Robert Van Geons, executive director of RowanWORKS Economic Development, says, “It can’t be understated how impactful [higher ed institutions] can be on promoting and attracting and raising people’s awareness of the community.”

Rowan County Chamber of Commerce president Elaine Spalding agrees: “Higher education is key for any community’s continued economic success.” Spalding mentions that the Chamber of Commerce is looking to make the community an attractive place where students will want to stay post graduation. To do that, they’re focusing on entrepreneurial development so millennials will start their businesses in the county, and they’re developing lofts and modern apartments where young people will want to live.

Higher Ed Attracts Businesses in Search of an Educated Workforce

The Times-News in Burlington, North Carolina, published an editorial maintaining that an educated workforce attracts businesses and enriches students’ career opportunities:

“Money invested in higher education comes back into our economy many times over, and don’t believe anyone who says differently….

[This economic impact study] is evidence that the investment we make in educating our residents is paying dividends. Not only do these institutions graduate people who, on average, will make more than residents with only a high school diploma, but they also attract research dollars and businesses that seek an educated workforce….

We need people who follow their passions, but with better guidance from college counselors who can help them shape a career path.”

To read more about the $63.5 billion impact of higher education in North Carolina, click here.

For more on EMSI’s economic impact methodology, see the EMSI EIS page. Follow EMSI on Twitter (@DesktopEcon) or check us out on LinkedIn.