PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania’s wealth of colleges, universities and trade schools are engines of economic growth and opportunity, but the state has to take a more active role in tapping their contributions to remain competitive in a global economy, according to a report released Monday.

In a follow-up to a 2003 study that gave a sobering analysis of Pennsylvania’s sliding fortunes, the Brookings Institution points to academia as one key to improving the state’s economy.

“It’s an important state and yet it’s not doing very well,” said Amy Liu, deputy director of the metropolitan policy program at Brookings, a Washington think tank. “One of the best economic assets are the universities ... if leveraged, they can be anchors for economic revitalization.”

Not only do academic institutions bring jobs and revenue to their local communities, they train the future work force and develop new technologies that could become viable businesses.

They also help revitalize distressed communities by buying rundown properties and converting them into university housing or developing retail centers with coffee houses, shops and restaurants.

Brookings is calling for the state to set up a higher education advisory board, target investments near campuses and give grants to institutions to encourage community development ventures. It also wants the state to give municipalities grants to offset tax revenue losses by having a tax-exempt institution and hold an annual forum on higher education’s role in their communities.

The study is funded by the Ford Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the William Penn Foundation.

Pennsylvania has a lot of academic assets to bank on, with 250 four- and two-year institutions, the third highest in the nation following only California and New York, the report said.

About 36 percent of these institutions are among the top 50 employers in their county. For four-year institutions alone, nearly half are among their county’s top 50 employers.

In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University are among the top five employers. The University of Pittsburgh, Gettysburg College and Bucknell University are the second largest employers in Allegheny, Adams and Union counties, respectively.

For its part, higher education is increasingly realizing it has a stake in community development.

“As population and economic growth started to shift away from cities to the suburbs, and universities realize they have to compete for students, they see that the viability of higher ed institutions is really dependent upon the community in which they reside,” Liu said.

On Monday, Pennsylvania State University is holding the state’s — and possibly the nation’s — first summit on higher education’s role in economic development, said Craig Weidemann, vice president of outreach. About 65 institutions and more than 500 people have signed up for the conference.

Last year, the university created its Office of Work Force and Economic Development to organize and encourage university, community and government partnerships.

The role of higher education is changing from a “nice amenity” in the community to “being one of the drivers of the economy and community development,” Weidemann said.

Last year, Penn State contributed $6.3 billion to the state economy, he said.

Widener University in Chester has contributed about $200 million to Delaware County’s economy last year — or $460 million for campuses in Chester, Harrisburg and Wilmington, Del., said president Jim T. Harris.

He said it’s important for the university to be a good neighbor and understand its role as a leader in the community. Moreover, Widener’s mission is to develop responsible students.

“The best way to do that is to be directly involved in the community,” Harris said.

Last fall, the university began training faculty in “service learning” courses. These are courses where students are required to perform public service as part of their studies.

Eric Buzzerd, a 22-year-old Widener senior, will be talking to elementary school children in distressed Chester next semester about their communities and acting as positive role models.

It is a requirement of his “Sociology in Society” course, but Buzzerd said he’s happy to do it.

“I think going outside the classroom offers a whole lot more than sitting inside,” he said.


On the Net:

Brookings Institution:

Economic impact of Pennsylvania’s colleges and universities

States with the highest number of four- and two-year colleges or universities:

1. California

2. New York

3. Pennsylvania

4. Texas

5. Illinois

6. Ohio

7. Florida

8. Georgia

9. North Carolina

10. Missouri

Number of higher education institutions in Pennsylvania:

•Four-year colleges and universities: 148

•Two-year colleges: 102

•Other higher education (vocational schools): 254

Other statistics:

•More than half of Pennsylvania’s post-secondary institutions are in the southeastern or southwestern parts of the state. The Philadelphia metro area is home to 34 percent of institutions while 19 percent is found in the Pittsburgh area.

•79 percent of Pennsylvania’s counties have at least one college, university or vocational school.

Economic impact:

•36 percent of the state’s four- and two-year institutions are among the top 50 employers in their county. If only four-year institutions are considered, the figure rises to nearly half.

Source: The Brookings Institution

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.