Positioning Liberal Arts Campuses to Participate in Regional Economic Development: A Primer

By Fairweather, Peter; Gifford, Kenneth A. | Planning for Higher Education, October-December 2014 | Go to article overview

Positioning Liberal Arts Campuses to Participate in Regional Economic Development: A Primer


Fairweather, Peter, Gifford, Kenneth A., Planning for Higher Education


THE CHANGING ROLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION IN REGIONAL ECONOMIES

IN THE 19TH CENTURY, THE MORRILL ACT ESTABLISHED land-grant universities with the expectation that these institutions would support economic innovation and growth in the states in which they were located. It is a model that has endured. Indeed, until very recently, the idea of higher education as an economic catalyst focused almost exclusively on land-grant colleges and research universities. For example, as late as 2002, the Southern Policies Growth Board published Innovation U: New University Roles in a Knowledge Economy, which highlighted the work of 12 prominent research universities as exemplars of higher education's role in an innovation-driven economy (Tornatzky, Waugaman, and Gray 2002). More recently, however, public and private liberal arts colleges have been enlisted in this effort. By the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, Michael Porter (2007), promulgator of a highly influential theory on the importance of industry clusters in economic development, called on higher education in general to play a pivotal role in fostering such clusters in regional economies. This approach was embodied in regional reports that put higher education at the center of regional economic development, like that of the Higher Education Alliance for the Rock River Region (of Illinois):

Higher education, with its networks and linkages
throughout the region and state, is uniquely positioned
to convene the necessary representatives from the
diverse government, business, education, social, and
civic groups and to serve as the third-party, neutral
catalyst to create the collaborations needed to develop
industry clusters. (Northern Illinois University
Outreach 2005, p. 8)

By the end of the decade, there was a groundswell of enthusiasm for all manner of colleges and universities to assume a central role in regional economic growth. In fact, institutions of higher education were now routinely referred to as "economic drivers" (Lane and Johnstone 2012). In little more than a decade, the perceived economic development role of higher education expanded from a narrow field of large elite research institutions to include small liberal arts colleges, many of which traditionally saw their role as a refuge from economic forces rather than as an active creator of them.

What to do? Liberal arts colleges, and, in particular, public liberal arts colleges, now confront an entirely new set of expectations from the regions in which they are located. A common first response is for the institution in question to issue an economic impact statement detailing how the dollars it spends support businesses throughout the region. Besides the fact that these studies are notoriously unreliable (Siegfried, Sanderson, and McHenry 2006), they send the signal that the college has little to offer the region's economy other than its purchasing power. Our experience suggests that is far from the truth. Responding effectively to this sudden immersion in economic issues requires some careful planning.

Almost every college has some kind of catalytic role to play in its regional economy. The long-term benefits of assuming this role have been documented: enriched programming for the institution and its students, improved relationships with regional stakeholders and businesses, access to new funding sources, etc. (Association of University Technology Managers, n.d.; Wittman and Crews 2012). However, in order to be accepted as an effective partner, a college's economic development responses must be perceived as credible by the larger community, and in order to sustain campus support, they must be seen to add real value to the institution itself. This article provides an overview of the key issues that a liberal arts campus must address as it prepares to enter the economic development arena.

GETTING YOUR LIBERAL ARTS CAMPUS INTO THE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT GAME

When thinking about how an institution can contribute to a region's economic development, it is important to remember that economic development encompasses a variety of approaches, each of which can overlap with the others. …

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