(Editor's Note: This is the first of two articles exploring the challenges faced by higher education in coming to grips with the role of four-year colleges and universities in serving the economic development needs of their regions and states.)
As institutions of higher education come to terms with the expectation that they should adopt a mission to serve the economic development needs of their regions, some in academia may recall wistfully Thomas Jefferson's view that "education, as a lifelong encounter with the delights of the mind, is an end in itself."
But a growing number of leaders in higher education might view a different Jeffersonian observation as more appropriate today: "Education is a highly legitimate claimant on public treasuries."
The point of the latter quote, in the view of many within the higher ed system and in other segments of society, is that institutions of higher education provide economic value and should receive financial support accordingly.
The issue was brought to the fore in this state in recent days with a report to the board of regents of the University of Washington by the Washington Future Committee, headed by former regent William Gates Sr., which suggested UW could do more despite its obvious and significant economic impact.
The group of business and civic leaders Gates chaired urged UW to increase the number of in-state students, keep tuition affordable and increase the number of STEM degrees and do a better job of telling its story to key stakeholders.
But well before the Gates report, Initiatives have been under way across the country to explore what role colleges and universities should play, and, how, in helping grow the economies of their states.
UW President Michael Young and the regents will now have to digest the report and weigh its relevance to how the state's major research university charts its future.
Nowhere is the process of higher ed's role in economic development being scrutinized more than in North Carolina. There a process is under way that has each of the state's college and universities being asked to define their mission and answer how the mission is serving the needs of the state today.
"It's basically a hard look at what the state needs to meet its education and economic needs," says Sam Smith, the WSU president emeritus, who has been hired as a consultant to help the North Carolina process.
"They got me involved to see how they are using modern technology and online education to meet the needs of the state," explained Smith, who as WSU president from 1985 to 2000, launched WSU's three branch campuses and helped the launch of Western Governors University as an online accredited university. Still a member of WGU board of trustees, Smith guided the launch of WGU-Washington in early 2011.
Smith says he is currently advising colleges in a handful of states as part of his role with a Sacramento-based higher-education consulting organization called Collaborative Brain Trust, one of whose focuses is consulting for colleges and universities in dealing with the challenges of change they face.
"It's as simple as if institutions are doing a better job of meeting the needs of students, they'll get more students and more pay for what they are doing," Smith said.
Smith notes there's a challenge for colleges and universities facing increasing budget pressures and for businesses seeking the educated work force necessary to grow and compete and both challenges need to be addressed by those who would have higher education serve economic development needs of their states.
Those who help chart the changes higher education needs to make have to understand that "there's little incentive, from strictly a business point of view, for universities to increase the number of students and there's no reward for them to increase the percentage of graduates or to decrease the time it takes to get a degree," Smith said. "And there's little incentive for a university to see to attract middle-income students since those are the student least likely to be able to afford college."
And he pointed out that "many businesses don't feel there's a lack of educated people for them to hire because they are hiring students from other states. In essence those businesses think it's easier and less expensive to have a system where they hire those educated elsewhere.
"Higher education institutions who hope to become a more essential part of producing the state workforce of the future need to convince those businesses we're talking about that in-state schools can better tailor their programs to fit the changing and emerging needs of the state's economy," Smith added.
Smith lauded the University of Washington Medical School for the partnering arrangements it has developed.
Smith suggests that the fastest-growing segment of "the new model" for public universities will be what is referred to as the 2-4, meaning four-year institutions partnering with community colleges, which already have built a reputation of working with businesses to determine their workforce needs.
"One of the first things I do when I go into state to examine how things are working is to look at the primary medical school to see if it is a silo or is working with others," he said. "If the medical school is a silo, it tells me that the university isn't involved with others and isn't interested in changing."
(Next: Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University, brought with him when he arrived here in May of 2007 from Missouri a conviction that economic contribution should be a key measure of how well an institution of higher education is fulfilling its mission.
And James Gaudino, who became Central Washington University president in 2009, spent 15 years looking at higher education from the outside as executive director of National Communication Association. He says "It would be irresponsible for a public institution to ignore the higher-education need" of its state or region. They share their thoughts on the next Flynn's Harp.)