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Higher ed and industry: a most important public-private partnership

Tony Fernandez

Tony Fernandez

The economic downturn is showing solid signs of recovery. This “Great Recession” has lasted longer and has cost more jobs than those in recent history. While GDP and corporate profits have increased significantly, employment figures continue to lag and may not reach pre-recession levels for quite some time. It is clear that the decline we experienced was much more than a typical economic downturn. The rules of the game have changed permanently, including the rules for higher education.

Idaho’s colleges and universities have been called upon to do more with less. Three developments in particular have challenged public-supported higher education. First, state revenues have declined significantly, causing Idaho higher education institutions to manage a 25 percent loss in general fund support over the past three years. Second, during this same period nearly every public-supported institution in Idaho realized increased enrollments, setting record levels every semester at some schools. Finally, the government and private sector looked to our institutions of higher learning for help, not only to spur the economy and quicken the pace of recovery, but also to establish new and more effective partnerships.

Public-supported colleges and universities contribute to the economy in three major ways: creating knowledge, transferring knowledge, and creating an educated population. Idaho’s public-supported higher education institutions contribute to each of these areas.

In FY 2011 Idaho’s college and universities secured contracts and grants totaling over $100M more than were allocated through the state’s general fund. These monies have a direct, immediate and positive impact on local economies, but more than that, they support the creation of new knowledge that will help Idaho’s future economy. Faculty at Idaho’s three research universities are constantly creating knowledge in areas as diverse as agriculture, the health sciences, computer science, and nanotechnology, to name only a few, often working cooperatively with other Idaho institutions and industry.

While the creation of new knowledge through research is a core function of every public-supported university, this activity would be of little value to our economy if results were not transferred to those who can use it. Knowledge transfer may take the form of cooperation with local industries to develop new, marketable products or to improve existing ones as a result of research programs. Other knowledge transfer is equally important, such as faculty providing technical and management assistance to local businesses. College-supported workforce training programs designed to quickly meet local employer needs improve business efficiencies and competitiveness. Idaho’s community colleges often provide these latter services.

From its beginnings, higher education’s fundamental role has been to create an educated population. This core mission continues today and certainly applies to all our Idaho colleges and universities. The societal benefits of a well-educated citizenry are numerous and well documented, but in this difficult climate of a post-recession recovery the economic benefits of an educated population have taken center stage.

During the recent recession those with a college degree were twice as likely to be employed compared to those with only a high school diploma. Further emphasizing higher education’s importance, data show that individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn on average 65 percent more than those with only a high school diploma. The earning power of our population is vital to Idaho’s future economic health, but more importantly, well-educated employees are more productive, creative, and are more likely to make significant contributions to business.

With all of the above in mind, the Idaho State Board of Education and our colleges and universities have set a goal that 60 percent of all Idahoans (ages 25-34) will have a college degree or certificate by 2020. In addition, Idaho’s higher education institutions are joining with other organizations and the private sector to form a coalition aimed at spurring our local economies. Teams from Idaho’s colleges and universities are collaborating with industry, transferring knowledge in order to develop and commercialize new technologies, improve existing ones, and otherwise increase higher education’s role as an integral player in Idaho’s economy.

Public-private partnerships are much in the news these days and the most fundamental of these partnerships is that of public-supported higher education with industry. This relationship has never been more important than now as we gear up for economic recovery in this post-recession era.

This column was written by Tony Fernandez, president of Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston.

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