In Their Opinion...

Paul Grasso is the president and CEO of The Development Corporation, Clinton County, New York.

Paul Grasso: Colleges key to economic development

By: Paul Grasso, Just Sayin'

Last week, Washington Monthly magazine, one of the most credible publications of its kind in the country, named Clinton Community College (CCC) among the top 50 community colleges in the United States and SUNY Plattsburgh (PSU) among the top 30 colleges in the country.

Washington Monthly ranked CCC based on their evaluation in eight categories including academic challenge, student-faculty interaction, first-year retention rate and three-year graduation-transfer rate.

The magazine ranked PSU as offering its students the “Best Bang for the Buck,” which I suspect is a highly technical term used in higher education that means highest value to cost.

The Washington Monthly announcement is timely given that, on Sept. 26, Clinton Community College will host a presentation and panel discussion on Colleges and Universities as Economic Drivers. In other words, what role do colleges and universities play in growing a region’s economy?

It’s a relevant topic. Gov. Andrew Cuomo believes colleges and universities play such a significant economic-development role that he created Start Up New York (formerly “Tax Free New York”). Start Up New York is a program that “utilizes private partnerships with New York’s higher education system to create jobs and spur economic development in areas of the state that have been depressed for decades.”

What is an economic driver? Simply put, an economic driver is “any industry that stimulates economic growth and creates spin-off jobs in a region.”

In today’s economy, it’s undeniable that colleges and universities are enormous economic drivers, but it wasn’t always so.

Historically, economic impact has never been a principal mission of colleges and universities. Originally, the role of a university was “to stimulate a life of the mind apart from the necessities of making a living.” Unfortunately, some educators still believe that colleges and universities exist only for “education for education’s sake” and don’t believe that their role is to prepare students for careers.

I wasn’t until the 19th century that wealthy industrialists like Edwin Stevens and Steven Van Rensselaer established schools specifically to train civil engineers that people began to think that colleges and universities could have a direct role in contributing to industry and that the economy could benefit from higher education.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morill Act that created land grants to establish colleges whose purpose was to “advance the nation’s agricultural, scientific and engineering base.”

The role of colleges and universities further expanded in the middle of the 20th century. In 1945, the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Vannevar Bush, wrote a report titled “Science — The Endless Frontier” and presented it to President Harry Truman. (I wonder, could Gene Roddenberry have gotten the idea for “Space — The Final Frontier” from Vannevar Bush?)


Bush’s report recommended that the United States should rely on its colleges and universities to “explore and advance the sciences.” In fact, several years after the report was made public, the government established the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health and terms such as “academic medical center” and “research university” became commonly used. It was during this period that the government began making significant investments in university research. These investments have paid huge dividends.

In 1980, the Bayh-Dole Act took things to the next level when their legislation raised the expectation that colleges and universities would “commercialize intellectual property” and would “gain financially through patents, licenses and royalties.”

In the future, prosperous local/regional economies will be those closely linked to colleges and universities. The challenge is in ensuring that colleges and universities understand the local/regional economy and how they can best contribute to it. Equally important is for businesses to understand the capabilities of colleges and universities.

Being an economic driver is an important role for colleges and universities. While a regional economy has multiple economic drivers, there are some roles that only a college or university can play.

In discussing this column with my father, he told me “like Michelangelo, you need to be an artist to be an engineer” and as such colleges and universities, like CCC and PSU, are primed to strike this balance.

While it may not be obvious how the humanities are essential to starting a meaningful career, the humanities are an important aspect of a full and meaningful life.

Paul A. Grasso Jr., president and CEO, The Development Corporation, 190 Banker Road, Suite 500, Plattsburgh. Phone 563-3100, fax 562-2232, email