Institute Forum

Summary: Higher Ed’s Role in Economic Development February 7, 2011

Experts: Higher Ed Key to Economic Growth

Both President Obama and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have called higher education the “key driver” of the innovation economy — an essential tool to leading an economic recovery.

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Audio (Full)

Video: Introduction by George Philip
Video: Laura Schultz
Video: Jim King
Video: Jason Lane
Video: Gene Bunnell
Video: David A. Lewis
Video: Question-and-Answer session

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George Philip, president of the University at Albany, could not agree more.

“To compete and create new jobs, we need a highly educated, highly trained workforce,” Philip said. “We need to constantly develop and deploy new technologies, new processes and ideas. That’s what universities do: educate and create new ideas and drive the innovation economy.”

Philip’s remarks set the tone for a February 7 public policy forum, held at Albany’s Empire State Plaza, and kicked off UAlbany Day, when university officials educate state leaders on the institution’s value to the community and the state. The Rockefeller Institute brought together five experts from UAlbany, who stressed the importance of stronger support for public higher education in revitalizing New York’s economy. The session was moderated by Institute Senior Fellow David Shaffer. The Institute is based at UAlbany, part of the State University of New York.

Laura Schultz, an assistant professor at the College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering, discussed the role of leading-edge research partnerships in spurring regional economic growth.

Policymakers and economists have been interested in such partnerships since a collaboration between universities and corporations led to soaring growth in the high-tech industry in California’s Silicon Valley in the 1980s, Schultz said. Within the last decade, New York has encouraged such educational and business collaborations through its own investments, and received a high return in Albany, which has become a recognized hub for nanotechnology and semiconductor research. The positive results include a higher-than-average high-tech job growth rate in Albany, she said.

“What was really key to New York State having the success is looking at what New York State has within the state … and partnering with IBM, an excellent company with a long history of collaboration, and coming together and using it for economic development,” Schultz said.

Jim King, state director of the New York State Small Business Development Center based at UAlbany, discussed programs that advise more than 15,000 small businesses a year. Encouraging entrepreneurial graduates to stay in an area after graduation is key to business development, he said, as research shows new job creation in the last four or five years has been from startups, rather than established companies.

Speaking of Albany’s development as a hub for nanotechnology, he stressed that many small businesses are likely to emerge to support larger research partners.

“We literally have thousands of smaller businesses that are going to become feeding businesses that will probably provide exponentially more opportunities for the community than the prime nano site,” he said.

Jason Lane, assistant professor of education administration and policy and a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, described U.S. higher education as a global leader — one other countries are eager to emulate. But the United States is losing sight of its self-interest in investing in public higher education, even as other nations — notably in the Middle East and Asia — are recruiting American educational institutions to offer programs in their countries, Lane said.

“These other countries are turning to our institutions now to serve the public goods and needs that our country once turned to higher education for,” Lane said. “Unfortunately, we’re beginning to defund higher education in an era when other countries are beginning to invest in our education and beginning to invest in our own institutions.”

Gene Bunnell, associate professor of UAlbany’s Department of Geography and Planning, stressed the importance of higher education institutions in improving their communities’ quality of life. He commended a recent trend among some suburban-based SUNY schools in building satellite campuses in downtown areas.

“These colleges and universities are sources of pride to their communities. They’re rooted in place,” Bunnell said. “So we are committed to the places where we exist.”

David A. Lewis, also in the Department of Geography and Planning, talked about how university-based business incubators have exceptional track records in spurring the creation of new business. The incubators provide startups with access to specialized knowledge and the legitimacy that comes with name recognition in the marketplace, while the universities benefit from opportunities that the startups provide for research and learning.

“It is a two-way street," Lewis said. “Both institutions actually benefit from it.”


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.