Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Universities’ Role in Community and Economic Development

By Ranada Robinson, Senior Research Associate.

When many of us think of universities, we often think of young high school graduates moving onto campus and four years later walking across a stage wearing a cap and gown and holding a brand new degree. But as community and economic development practitioners know, universities are so much more than that. If these academic powerhouses are at the table in community and economic development activities, major moves can be made. Why?
1.       Universities have access to academics who combine creativity and expertise but may need an avenue to implement ideas—the opportunity to apply academic concepts to real-world problems. If professors and their research students are working on solving problems, why not invite them to work to solve the problems in your community? Human capital is more than new graduates looking for employment—it is also the researchers and academicians who are looking to test out their theories in the real world.

2.       Universities have students looking for internships and on-the-ground experience. Students need opportunities, whether part-time positions during the academic year or summer internships, to gain relevant experience as they build their resume before entering the job market upon graduation. Opportunities to collaborate with universities can come with built-in labor pool.

3.       Universities can use community investment as an added measure of value when presenting return on investment to stakeholders. Just like corporations, public and private universities have to report how they’re effectively using funding. Making community investments and having measurable impacts on identified community issues can bolster these reports.

4.       Universities have brand recognition and community support. Alumni and hometown supporters generally have strong ties to universities. They know where the universities are, they are familiar with some of the programs and activities going on, they support athletics, and they recognize the brand. Universities have a strong voice that can be used to attract people when new programs and services are launched.

5.       Universities have funding that can be leveraged. Universities qualify for grants and other sources of funding that may not be available for governments or the private sector. Partnerships can be created along shared areas of focus, and there are opportunities for grant matching.
Here are a few examples of Market Street clients who are benefiting greatly from partnerships with colleges and universities in their community. There are mutual benefits for all involved when these relationships are formed and strengthened.
Jackson, MS – The Jackson Heart Study is the largest single-site cardiovascular disease research study focused on African Americans. The study is an effort undertaken by a collaborative of the National Institutes of Health and three institutions: Jackson State University, Tougaloo College, and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Through the research, which recruited over 5,000 participants in the Jackson MSA, researchers have been able to collect longitudinal data that will help determine why African Americans have a higher incidence of heart disease and what can be done to decrease it. The Jackson metro benefits from this partnership through various community outreach activities, including linking participants to needed services and creating the Community Health Advisors Network, which conducts health screenings, health fairs, and many other awareness and prevention activities. Students benefit through greater research opportunities, access to mentoring from professors from all three institutions, and exposure to job opportunities after graduation.
Atlanta, GA – Many people know about Atlanta’s BeltLine project, but what some may not know is that the idea came from a Georgia Tech student’s master’s thesis. The thesis presented an idea of an integrated design for transportation that was thoughtful of land use, greenspace, and sustainable growth, which led to a grassroots community effort and ultimately to a $3 billion project. Now, city officials pay more attention to ideas coming from Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning. Most recently, a city councilman has chosen to look into a student’s master’s thesis related to a parking tax in Atlanta.
Nashville, TN – The Nashville Urban Design Program provides real-world experience for University of Tennessee’s Landscape Architecture seniors. According to the site, Metro Nashville and Middle Tennessee become “a laboratory to visit and experience the issues and opportunities confronting the region.” In Summer 2013, the program collaborated with Nashville Downtown Partnership to explore the potential of micro-housing on sites in Downtown Nashville. Teams of students worked together to figure out the best way to design small, affordable spaces.
Joplin, MO – The Joplin region has several examples of university-led economic development efforts. The Kansas Polymer Research Center at Pittsburg State, which receives over $1.1 million in federal funding for bio-based research, supports tech transfer of academic polymer research projects into new enterprises. The Missouri Alternative and Renewable Energy Technology (MARET) Center at Crowder College is conducting applied research and assisting in new product development in green technology and alternative energy. The Missouri Center for Advanced Power Systems (MOCAP) located at Missouri Southern State University is a center for research as well as specialized workforce training for engineers at EaglePicher Technologies, a manufacturing firm. MOCAP is a partnership between four universities: Missouri Southern State University, Missouri University of Science and Technology, Missouri State University, and University of Missouri-Columbia; along with EaglePicher, the Joseph Newman Innovation Center, and the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.
These are just a few examples of the innovative ways universities are contributing to community and economic development. Universities are not just where future workers gain degrees—they are skills training fields, they are community advocates, and they are valuable assets to both government officials and corporate leaders. Finding ways to leverage and combine resources is a vital strategic move that the smart communities are undertaking.