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Economic Development

Not only does the state of Oklahoma receive positive economic returns from higher education, but its citizens do as well. Workers with more education earn higher incomes, which results in more tax revenues for the state. In fact, studies show that a college graduate will earn an average of $1.1 million more than a high school graduate throughout a lifetime (table 13A). College graduates are less likely to be unemployed or need public assistance and are less likely to be incarcerated. In addition, they are more likely to vote in elections, volunteer in their communities and make charitable contributions.

In each corner of the state, Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities are contributing to the economic development efforts within their local communities and surrounding areas. From providing business and industry with customized workforce training and education to creating new business opportunities for entrepreneurs who are looking to move their research from the laboratory into the marketplace, Oklahoma higher education is responding to the challenge. A perfect example of these kinds of efforts is the collaborative initiative among the State Regents, colleges and universities, the career technology system and the Oklahoma Health Care Workforce Center aimed at addressing the dramatic health care worker shortage.

Studies show that most regions of the United States with strong economies are those with strong research universities. Research conducted at state higher education institutions often creates new businesses that produce new products and services that are key to improving economic development. In Oklahoma, public higher education institutions are heavily involved in research activities that have the potential to make our state, nation and world a better place to live. Focused research in areas such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, energy, aerospace, medicine, sensor technology and weather radar systems are just a few examples.

Several important initiatives putting Oklahoma on the world map of research and innovation are the Economic Development Generating Excellence (EDGE) project, the $475 million capital bond issue for higher education and the State Regents’ decision to join the National LambdaRail.

The State Regents played a lead role in developing and implementing EDGE, which was designed by Gov. Brad Henry in 2003 to substantially strengthen Oklahoma’s economy and quality of life. As a result, EDGE has led to the creation of four action plans, including transforming Oklahoma into the Research Capital of the Plains®, of which Oklahoma’s colleges and universities play a big part. In 2008 the EDGE Policy Board invested more than $11 million in five projects that promise to create and expand businesses producing more jobs in Oklahoma. Among the recipients is a University of Oklahoma project, which received nearly $1 million for the first year and more than $750,000 for the second year, that will assist the wind energy industry in Oklahoma and elsewhere by producing high-precision wind power assessments and forecasts in a highly integrated information system. OU also received $3 million over two years for a project that offers advanced testing and manufacturing of replacement parts to military aviation and the commercial aerospace industry.

The capital bond issue, signed into law in 2005 by Gov. Henry, has funded 140 capital projects in 36 communities for new and upgraded classrooms, laboratories, student services and other infrastructure.

The National LambdaRail is a major initiative of U.S. research universities and private sector technology companies to provide a national computing infrastructure for research and experimentation in networking technologies and applications. As a member of the NLR, ownership of the underlying optical infrastructure ensures Oklahoma’s research community unprecedented control and flexibility in meeting the requirements of the most advanced network applications and providing capacity and availability to link higher education with business and industry. Specifically, the NLR can bridge the gap between collaborative research and commercialization opportunities for our state.

Research funding on college campuses comes from a variety of sources, including grants and contracts through federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense. As graph 15A shows, sponsored research at Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities has increased significantly since 2003, due in large part to Oklahoma EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). Oklahoma EPSCoR is a partnership among colleges and universities, industry and research institutions. Its mission is to make Oklahoma researchers more successful in competing for research funding.

Oklahoma currently ranks 49th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in college and university research dollars per state resident (graph 15B), but initiatives such as EDGE and EPSCoR seek to improve our share of research dollars.

OSUIT student
Photo courtesy of Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology.