In mid-November, I traveled to Atlanta to attend the annual meeting of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. One of the keynote speakers, Georgia Governor Zell Miller, electrified the group with his description of initiatives that have transformed his state's higher education system and energized its economy.
Georgia decided in the 1980s that post-secondary education -- universities and technical schools -- was the key to economic development, and it made significant investments to improve the quality of its institutions and increase students' access to them. Today the state is reaping the rewards of those investments. Since 1991, according to Governor Miller, Georgia's economy has created more than 2,000 new jobs every week.
The linchpins of that success are:
The HOPE scholarship program: This allows every student who graduates from high school with a B average or better to attend any state college, university, or technical school with tuition and mandatory fees, plus a book allowance, paid by the state. Students who choose to enroll at an in-state private institution receive a $3,000 scholarship. The scholarship also has provisions for returning older students. Among other things, the program has increased enrollments significantly -- 18 percent for public institutions, 43 percent for privates in this decade.
Governor Miller stresses the importance of outstanding university faculty in the economic equation. This is what he says on that topic:
"The future will belong to those who can put two things hand in hand: the research and ideas that will drive technology forward, and the educated workers who can make something of those ideas.
"The key to both of these things is faculty. If you want to attract high-quality faculty, both in teaching and research, you have to pay competitive salaries. There is no other way."
The strategies that are working so well for Georgia are not necessarily the perfect formula for other states. But the economic and cultural resurgence of Georgia is clear evidence of the role higher education can play in building a strong and growing economy. The most important thing we in Indiana can do is look at our state, our institutions, and our economy with fresh eyes and think about the best ways to position ourselves for the short- and long-term futures.
If we continue to do business just as we have always done it, we will be left behind as other states surge forward. The "brain drain" that has been in the news in Indiana in recent months has been treated as an education issue when, in fact, it is an economic issue. Manufacturing, agriculture and related industries have been the foundation of our state's economy for many years. They must continue to play an important role. But if we fail to recognize the impacts of rapidly advancing technology on those areas, and if we neglect to develop new business initiatives, our economy will not compete successfully in the global arena.
When young engineers, scientists, managers, and others with highly valued technical skills leave Indiana for high-paying positions in other states, one of the questions we should be asking is: Why doesn't our economy have jobs for people who are at the cutting edge of the industries with the most growth potential?
A strong university system is only one part of the formula for a thriving state economy, but, as Georgia has recognized, it is an indispensable part. It is time for Indiana to take a hard look at its support for higher education and to recognize its role in economic development.