Higher education and workforce readiness need entrepreneurship building blocks

by Kelly Lyon ([email protected]) 375 views 

Editor’s note: Dr. Kelly Hunt Lyon is the director of Webster University’s Little Rock Area Campuses. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.

With the recent Higher Education Coordinating Board approval of a new outcomes-based funding framework, we have an opportunity to redefine higher education’s value proposition in Arkansas. If the basis of state funding changes from how many students start college, both two-year and four-year, to how many finish, that will require a systemic reevaluation of how colleges and universities operate.

While we’re rethinking our approach to funding higher education, it’s important to look beyond the popular rhetoric surrounding the connection between higher education and economic prosperity.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson connected higher education with workforce readiness to increase the state’s economic prosperity. Governors across the country have a similar approach. In a recent research study, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder credited public research universities with turning around Michigan’s post-recession economy. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper highlighted the land-grant university’s role in a new way to measure — in order to increase — the economic impact of Colorado agriculture.

My first introduction to a governor connecting higher education with economic development was a personal one. Working as an economic development liaison for Gov. Jim Guy Tucker allowed me to see this correlation between higher education and economic development in action. The experience formed the basis for my professional career and academic research on the role of colleges and universities in community and economic development.

My recent study includes 42 community and economic development projects at 30 colleges and universities in 22 states. The results provided quite a few ideas relevant to Arkansas, now and in the future.

Other states have created innovative initiatives with their colleges and universities that provide a deeper learning experience for students and contributes to the economy while simultaneously remaining true to an individual institution’s mission. I maintain to successfully implement outcomes based funding, we have to figure out how to do all three, plus a few other things. Not easy. But not impossible.

If you’re familiar with higher education’s role in community or economic development, you’ve heard something about the traditional missions:
• workforce development at community colleges;
• community engagement/development at land-grant universities; and
• technology commercialization at research universities.

We know what each type has done in the past, but was there any new common ground? In fact, there was: entrepreneurship. Support for entrepreneurship looks different at community colleges, land-grants, and research universities, but it was present in 77% of the study’s projects. Seven common characteristics emerged. Three of which included:

Student Participation
The study showed 93% of university community and economic development projects included students. You might think “duh” since I am talking about colleges and universities; however, the bulk of research in the past 20 years limited student roles to research assistants or interns. Some colleges and universities in this study have dedicated significant financial and organizational resources in support students’ intellectual property development. Students were recognized by the private sector for their unique perspectives and by communities as assets to a region’s economic prosperity after graduation.

Regional Alignment
The study showed 67% of the projects aligned with identified regional priorities. Some colleges and universities led regional initiatives, while others connected their resources to larger initiatives. Some projects referenced a single institution supporting the region, while others partnered with other institutions. The common theme was they had developed the ability and commitment to collaborate.

Faculty Roles
The study showed 60% of the study’s projects described faculty involvement. Faculty served as consultants, experts, and entrepreneurs. Some of these are in addition to their teaching or research roles, and some are the primary role. Faculty roles demands a more complex analysis. Faculty are the key to success from individual projects with industry and communities to successful implementation of a statewide outcomes funding formula.

I am not saying all the specific projects like those outlined in this study should be adopted by all of our colleges and universities. I am saying the approaches to entrepreneurship common to community colleges, land-grants, and research universities in this study have lessons that will help us in charting a new course for higher education in Arkansas.

Individual faculty were not quoted in this study, but a professor from Pace University, Bruce Bachenheimer, recently said, “Entrepreneurship is much broader than the creation of a new business venture. At its core, it is a mind-set — a way of thinking and acting. It is about imagining new ways to solve problems and create value.”

We have an opportunity to imagine new ways to fund, change and innovate in higher education and create value leading to greater economic prosperity and better quality of life for Arkansas.

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