Colleges turn to economic impact data to prove value

'These are the kinds of things external audiences care about'

As colleges face more scrutiny over value, many institutions are calculating and publishing specific data about how they benefit their local communities, Jon Marcus writes for the Hechinger Report.

The detailed accounting is an attempt to quantify spending by universities and account for the value of museums, libraries, sports programs, and other resources.

At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), administrators calculated how much sponsored research is currently underway ($107,382,478); the economic impact of its football team ($70 million a year in local spending); and the future salaries of business and engineering graduates (average: $49,000 to $60,000 for local residents).

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"It's all about quantifying what people get out of their investment," says John Provo, director of economic development at Virginia Tech. "These are the kinds of things external audiences care about."

As tuition rises and government funding falls, colleges and universities face more questions about their value—both to students and their local communities.

Even Harvard University published a report detailing the social and economic contributions of its graduates.

And last year, the Council of Independent Colleges released a report asserting that private, nonprofit institutions are more efficient than their public peers at producing graduates, despite their higher cost.

"We've been trying for many years to tell the story of the faster time to degree, the lower burden on taxpayers, the financial aid that's available," says Richard Ekman, council president. "We haven't made inroads with those kind of arguments."

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So the council tried a new tactic: a data report co-authored by an independent expert. "It's a more emphatic way of making the points we've made less authoritatively and less comprehensively before," Ekman says.

Meanwhile, other data reports have emerged through federal requirements. When research universities received billions in stimulus spending, they were also required to measure the economic impact.

The result of that requirement was the Universities Measuring the Impacts of Research on Innovation, Competitiveness, and Science—a two-year pilot program that last year morphed into the permanent Institute for Research on Innovation and Science (IRIS).

In the late 20th century, "there was an immense amount of trust and goodwill" that higher education had a meaningful impact on society, says Jason Owen-Smith, head of IRIS. But today, he says institutions face more pressure to prove that higher education is a sound investment for individuals and the community (Marcus, Hechinger Report, 1/22).

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