Skip to content Skip to navigation

Universities and Colleges as Economic Drivers (Review)

Message Number: 

Lane and Johnstone's effort provides a forum for scholars from a wide range of disciplines to explore, dissect, and assess current and evolving college and university initiatives across the broad rubrics of economic development and entrepreneurial activity, as well as the policies that support them. 


The posting below is a review by David L. Miller of the book, Universities and Colleges as Economic Drivers: Measuring Higher Education's Role in Economic Development, edited by Jason E. Lane and D. Bruce Johnstone. The review appeared in Planning for Higher Education. Volume 41, Number 4 | July-September 2013. Society for College and University Planning (  Copyright © Society for College and University Planning. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Synthesis of the Value and Benefits of SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning)

Tomorrow's Academia 

---------- 1,373 words ----------

Universities and Colleges as Economic Drivers: Measuring Higher Education's Role in Economic Development

Educational strategists Jason E. Lane and D. Bruce Johnstone provide a comprehensive, 360-degree view of current thought on the complex and somewhat nebulous concept of economic development and its effects on campus and beyond in Universities and Colleges as Economic Drivers: Measuring Higher Education's Role in Economic Development. Their book represents the first in a series of discussions that began at the State University of New York (SUNY) in 2011 directed at illuminating critical contemporary issues in higher education. Lane and Johnstone's effort provides a forum for scholars from a wide range of disciplines to explore, dissect, and assess current and evolving college and university initiatives across the broad rubrics of economic development and entrepreneurial activity, as well as the policies that support them.

Just as many of the most highly regarded university economic development initiatives result from broad and collaborative inputs, this book represents a wide range of scholarly, yet accessible, analyses that explore the university's role in economic development and how best to implement and track progress toward meaningful results for those who care to move forward within the discipline. In the preface, SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher asserts that "higher education is now a major economic driver, and colleges and universities are critical components of national and regional workforce-development strategies and innovation systems" (p. xiv). This book provides a primer for readers inside the university and well beyond who may have an interest in understanding the pivotal role that universities play in energizing innovation, entrepreneurship, and business development activities on a regional, national, and even global level.

For scholars, this book provides a survey of current thought on the challenges and potential successes within this evolving discipline and its relevance to the teaching and research missions of the university. For those in business, government, and policy-making roles, the book highlights numerous practical methods for discerning how best to connect with university talent in order to foster positive collaboration and generate results that will have value for all participants.

In making the case for the powerful intersection between higher education and economic competitiveness, Lane points out that "many nations are involved in the great brain race" (p. 2) as identified by Wildavsky (2010). Lane highlights studies, such as Abel and Dietz (2009), that acknowledge the deep and lasting impact of research universities on the development of an innovation-based economy. Given the wide range of economic development activities occurring across the university spectrum, Lane and Johnstone's goal is to help both insiders and novices better understand the drivers of successful university-related economic development initiatives, their numerous forms, and how they may be evaluated. Lane characterizes the university role in contributing to this effort as important, but not "privilege[d]" (p. 3) with regard to the more traditional missions of higher education.

The diversity of economic development programs and activities across the higher education landscape is almost as broad and disparate as the educational landscape itself. A recurring theme of the book makes it clear that there are several avenues to success and what may cause activities to flourish and thrive on one campus might not directly transplant to another, even within the same system. As it turns out, an institution's business development and community engagement activities, in the words of contributors Gais and Wright, "are often complex and sometimes nonlinear, and their effects may be contingent on local contexts, the cumulative effects of prior actions, and technological timing" (p. 32). These two scholars enumerate and discuss a lengthy list of mechanisms and tools that promote innovation, strengthen entrepreneurship, foster student internships and business partnerships, and cultivate technology transfer. The listing of these activities provides a helpful reference and cross-check for those who are seeking to initiate or expand their own programs. It also sets the stage for additional inquiry. As Gais and Wright note, it is important to ask "Why are there so many activities? How are they related to one another? How have they evolved within institutions? And how are they distributed across universities and colleges?" (p. 57). These are useful and enduring questions for any would-be practitioner or advocate who may be analyzing, evaluating, or implementing an economic development initiative.

In an era of diminishing resources, particularly in the public university context in which I work, it becomes increasingly important to articulate clear and focused strategic objectives and outcomes for economic development initiatives, especially because this discipline is a relative newcomer to the academic realm. This book devotes considerable discussion to this process and its inconsistent application across programs. There are few things less desirable than lackluster results, and one of them is raising expectations that turn out to be unmet in the end. Economic impact studies exist in many forms, and the book explores the mishaps that can occur when definitions are vague, multipliers are overstated, and spillover impacts are mischaracterized. The university is an amazing construct, according to contributors McHenry, Sanderson, and Siegfried, but it is certainly not a "perpetual motion" (p. 78) machine, and economic impact enthusiasts should take care not to overstate the case when it comes to performance and "but for us" statements that appear in news reports touting economic impact studies. The authors point out several remedies to ensure accurate and reliable impact forecasts and projections. Among them is the need to use appropriate multipliers. As they note, "Research expenditures on materials imported into the area have a multiplier of zero" (p. 88). It is also important to not double-count expenditures. For example, student tuition and college payroll are "one and the same thing . . . [since] the payment of tuition has no effect on the local economy until it is used to meet the payroll and buy other local goods and services" (p. 88). And finally, "If college impact studies were conducted at the level of accuracy most institutions require of faculty research, we would see fewer preposterous claims . . . this would improve public trust in higher education officials" (p. 88). Point well taken.

Additional chapters focus on the longer-term benefits of economic development initiatives, particularly with regard to university research parks and industry-government collaborative efforts. Not surprisingly, interdisciplinary and collaborative models are identified as being the most effective and delivering the greatest impact over time. Such efforts, often categorized within a "Triple Helix" (p. 135) framework (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff 2000), incorporate participants from university, industry, and government who work together to generate economic development that is integrated, strategic, and aligned with regional goals and aspirations. Such projects can include partnerships to develop, incubate, and accelerate products, processes, and technologies in a way that leads to faster transition from initial discovery through production and commercialization.

No discussion of the economic development/higher education nexus would be complete without a review of what Carnavale and Rose characterize as "the convergence of postsecondary education and the labor market" (p. 163). These authors point out that while the demand for education beyond high school will continue to increase and, in fact, become essentially a necessity, not all postsecondary courses, certificates, and degrees are equal. The need to "aspire to a dual bottom line" in higher education can help educators strike a proper balance in order to more effectively "create good neighbors and good citizens" (p. 186) who are both well-educated and contributing to the workforce in a productive manner. While these concepts may be simple, the task is complex.

We have often heard that out of challenge and adversity come innovation and opportunity. The book concludes with narratives that focus on the complexities of tech transfer and patents and the challenges of competing in a global marketplace. Universities, which are increasingly seen as economic drivers, are confronting their own challenges of reduced funding, changing demographics, and the advent of low-cost/no-cost massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other game-changing paradigms in the face of ever-increasing fixed costs. As a college administrator in a public system, the challenges outlined in this book align with my own experience and suggest that, collectively, we will need to adapt and encourage fresh thinking and economic revitalization within our own operations if we are to be the drivers that help energize and foster economic growth for our students and faculty, our administrative infrastructures, our communities, and our business and governmental partners.


Abel, J. R., and R. Dietz. 2009. Do Colleges and Universities Increase Their Region's Human Capital? Staff Report no. 401. New York: Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Etzkowitz, H., and L. Leydesdorff. 2000. The Dynamics of Innovation: From National Systems and "Mode 2" to a Triple Helix of University-Industry-Government Relations. Research Policy 29 (2): 109-123.

Wildavsky, B. 2010. The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Book Review Author Biography

David L. Miller is senior vice president for administration and fiscal affairs for the University of Wisconsin System.

- See more at: