Intellectual Curiosity About The Economics Of Higher Education
Written by Michael Lewis on June 13, 2013
By Michael Lewis
It seems like a great quest for knowledge: find out the exact impact of higher education on Miami-Dade County’s eco-nomy. A resolution asking exactly that was before a county commission committee this week.
The resolution by Commissioner Lynda Bell doesn’t say why she wants the county administration to make the study other than "the full contribution of these colleges and universities on the local economy has not been measured." Apparently, just a quest for knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
If the full commission later approves, the resolution would tell the county administration it has 90 days to measure it. That’s hurry-up knowledge.
Among things the county would have to measure would be the impact of each college or university with enrollment of 2,000 or more – although it seems logical to measure every college or university of any size if you really need to know the impact.
The measure lists six schools – the usual suspects – but with a 2,000-student cutoff would leave out such high-ticket schools as the Northwestern University’s Kellogg business school in Coral Gables, the University of Manchester’s MBA business school in downtown Miami and all the for-profit schools that are labeled colleges or universities. It would probably also exclude Nova’s South Dade campus.
The study as requested would also have to break out the major schools of the universities. The resolution specifies Florida International University’s law school and the University of Miami’s medical school, leaving it to researchers to define what other "major schools" they would have to study separately.
Add to this gargantuan task that the study would have to consider both the direct and indirect economic impact of each school, review the global engagement of each and then explain how that global engagement "may lead to foreign investment and trade," which is impossible to quantify as it leaves "may lead" to the imagination rather than what now exists.
The only way this study could be done properly is if the county’s economics operation was sitting pretty much idle and could be immediately mobilized. Researchers would have to make certain that each university and sub-unit was studied using identical methodology and, if the study hadn’t already been done by that methodology, somehow requisition the data from each school, get all the facts together quickly and work like mad.
Oh, there is another way: just take the studies that each school has doubtless done, add up the impact numbers and submit a total with some nice text around it and everyone will be happy – and the study will probably be fairly accurate.
If it’s to be done that way, we’ll be pleased to help: the total economic impact of the county’s five largest schools of higher education is $14.275 billion. That’s based on their own studies.
That’s a big number. It’s compelling. A great argument if you want to show huge impact.
Unfortunately, while that’s an accurate total of five studies by five institutions of higher education, they were all done in different years. We might be able to smooth out that factor by assigning a number equal to annual inflation to each, recalculate them all and add them up. That will take us well past the $15 billion figure and growing daily. It will be three months of inflation higher by September.
Also unfortunately, however, we can be positive that methodologies in the five studies and what was included in each figure varied considerably from campus to campus, from the $6.1 billion-plus that the University of Miami listed to the $300 at Barry University, which almost certainly is too low if the other universities are on the mark with their numbers.
As for the global engagement and its potential impact section of the study, every bit of data and every program listing would have to come from the universities themselves. A little creative writing by the study team could cover the "may lead" section of foreign investment and trade – sounds like a job for a journalist rather than an economic report.
Don’t take it wrong: the idea of investigating a concept – one that seems to be how big is higher education’s economic impact and what does that mean to our global economic position? – is solid as a rock.
One question is, why is the county government about to be set to the task – that is, what do we expect the county to use the study results for? The other question is, why do it now, with a 90-day window to get it done? What’s the rush?