Support Your Students, Support the Economy | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

There's a direct link between the economy and higher education, and our academic libraries are part of the connection

Steven_Bell(Original Import)

It's always news when President Obama weighs in on the changes that need to be made at our colleges and universities. In a speech delivered at the University of Texas, Austin, the President focused his remarks on the enormous impact of higher education on the economy. The gist: we can hardly expect to have a globally competitive economy without a highly educated workforce. Building that workforce, he said, requires more individuals to earn college diplomas.

To be sure, not everyone is sold on the promise of the college diploma, but nearly all agree that creating affordable education opportunities—whether college or vocational—is critical to our economic competiveness. What's more, that's true whether we are talking global, regional, or local economies.

The town-gown relationship
If there is one reoccurring issue you can count on to stoke the engine of higher ed debate, it's town-gown relationships. Most of what you hear about is bad behavior: institutions routinely accused of orchestrating land grabs that displace residents, turning a blind eye toward loud and obnoxious partying that keeps the neighbors awake and their shrubs doused with urine, and perpetrating the worst offense of them all—avoiding their fair share of taxes. Communities often regard the higher education institutions in their midst as bully behemoths that get what they wants when they want it—the classic 800-pound non-profit gorilla.

An unfortunate stereotype
It's true that institutions of higher education do a few annoying things that can earn them a bad neighbor reputation. But with the big picture in mind it's far easier to forgive the occasional case of drunken students disturbing the peace or parking in your driveway.

Economically speaking, our higher education institutions are the good guys, and many states produce reports to quantify the economic benefits to that effect. For example, in 2009 Virginia released a study reporting that every dollar spent on public higher education returned $13 in job-producing economic activity while adding $2.5 billion to the state's tax revenue. Turn up just about any other report on the economic impact of state higher education and you'll uncover similar findings. Admittedly, some of these reports are self-serving and compiled primarily to appeal to legislators who make the funding decisions, but they do remind us those colleges and universities bring more to their communities than keggers and noise complaints.

A local example
Think about your institution and the surrounding community. Do you see the ways in which your college or university supports the local economy? How about the local supermarket? Lots of students buy groceries there. There's a reason coffee shops, fast food eateries, and convenience stores gravitate to our neighborhoods.

This was all well-illustrated in a newspaper article about one academic community not far from my own institution. The Lehigh Valley, located about 50 miles north of Philadelphia, is home to six academic institutions ranging from Lehigh University, a large research institution, to small private colleges such as DeSales and Moravian. Together those institutions employ close to 6000 people whose wages pump money into the local economy to the tune of $425 million annually. Added to that is all the spending that students do in the community. It is just one component of the estimated $1.2 billion that these six institutions generate for the regional and state economy. Yes, that's billion!

Academic libraries contribute, too
While they certainly generate no tax revenue other than what comes from library workers' paychecks, it is easy to overlook the ways in which our libraries contribute to the local economy.

Academic libraries provide the resources scholars use for their research that can lead to new discoveries, some of which result in revenue-generating inventions and products. When academic libraries are renovated—or in the case of a new facility—local contractors benefit, providing jobs that support employees, and taxed wages to support local government. There are even academic library buildings rented out for private events such as reunions and weddings that generate revenue and spur other spending that eventually trickles back into local coffers via caterers, event staff, and others.

Some community members also use academic libraries for job research and small business development (most often at public institutions). By providing access to computers, research databases, and the expertise of reference librarians, academic libraries enable community members to gain employment and start or sustain local businesses. That is a plus for the economy as well.

How to help Obama
Our institutions are doing their part for regional and local economies. But if Obama's larger goal is to see more students succeed academically so that they graduate and become members of a globally competitive workforce, then my fellow academic librarians, we've got our work cut out for us. It's our job to use our special powers to support student learning whenever and wherever it happens.

Whether it's through a library instruction class, contributing to effective research assignments, embedding ourselves in a course to provide research support, or acting in positive ways to make our academic communities better so students want to be there and stay there, we can help our students persist to graduation. So if you need a reason to get up and go to work tomorrow, remember, you're strengthening the local economy, you're helping America become a stronger global competitor, and you're supporting the goals of our President. It's the only call that makes sound financial sense.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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