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New report touts financial impact of higher education in NC

“One of (Hodge’s) crazy ideas was to create a huge research center in the middle of a pine forest between three great universities, and that’s where we are today,” said Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System.

Ralls, among other state higher education leaders, gathered in Research Triangle Park on Wednesday to discuss a new economic report detailing the impact of colleges and universities in North Carolina.

Higher education added $63.5 billion in income to North Carolina’s economy in 2012-13, according to the report from Idaho-based firm Economic Modeling Specialists International. It’s being touted as the first effort to measure the statewide impact of the UNC system and North Carolina’s community and private colleges.

Of that $63.5 billion added annually, $27.9 billion came from UNC-system operations.

Since Republicans took over the N.C. General Assembly in 2010 at the tail end of the recession, politicians have placed an increased emphasis on public universities’ return on investment and ability to get students jobs. State support for the UNC system has dropped more than $1 billion since 2007 — and schools have felt pressure to prove economic value to avoid further cuts.

The new study asserted that taxpayers of North Carolina receive a significant return on investment year after year. From 2012 to 2013, state taxpayers invested $4.3 billion in higher education, generating a return of almost $17 billion.

EMSI economists said the report was conservative in how estimates were calculated, meaning the actual impact of colleges and universities could have been higher. The $63.5 billion impact is equivalent to the creation of more than 1 million jobs.

“We’re in the talent production business,” UNC-system President Tom Ross said.

Throughout Wednesday’s presentation, speakers emphasized how the study helps quantify research done by UNC-system faculty and medical institutions — which has been a recent rallying cry for Gov. Pat McCrory. During his State of the State address on Feb. 4, McCrory touted his new “Innovation to Jobs” initiative, an effort to commercialize university reports and not just have them “up on a shelf.”

When people think of a private college, they often think solely of their own college or university, said Hope Williams, president of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities. But together, she said, these institutions have billions of dollars of impact on the state.

North Carolina is actually bringing in more students to its higher education institutions than are leaving the state, she said.

The business community strongly values the talent pipeline universities are generating, said Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

“I cannot say how important workforce preparation is in the marketplace,” Schmitt said. “It’s hard to imagine our market without these schools.”

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