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36,001 steps in the right direction

- Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of Iowa's Cultivation Corridor.

Earlier this month, Iowa State University reported another record year; 36,001 students are enrolled for the 2015-16 academic year. Of the six primary colleges on campus, only one reported a dip in undergraduate enrollment at all (and that dip was a total Beardshear_Hallof four students). The growth in enrollments at Iowa’s largest university has been dramatic -- it’s up by more than 7,300 students since 2010, a more than 20 percent increase in five years. 

The huge increase turns on its head a national trend which has seen a -3.5percent erosion of enrollments at ‘degree granting post-secondary institutions’ [which includes both four- and two-year institutions] in the same time period. 

Depending upon the research that you subscribe to, there are between 15-20 generally recognized ‘innovation clusters’ in the U.S. Harvard economist Michael Porter is perhaps most regularly credited with researching and memorializing the cluster model, and his US Cluster Mapping Project is one of the richest- and easiest to use- geographic cluster-based economic databases publicly available today. Innovation clusters are self-sustaining economic ecosystems with three key ingredients:

  1. A strong concentration of companies and capital oriented around an industry, or, “geographic concentrations of interconnected companies and institutions in a particular field” [Porter, 1998];
  2. A robust pipeline of qualified human capital supplying those institutions with talent to feed innovation and production; and
  3. At least on Tier I research institution that is a global leader in the field referenced in item #1.   

Silicon Valley is the country’s and the world’s best-known innovation cluster.  The North Carolina Research Triangle is another brand-name cluster.  But other lesser-known clusters are functioning at a high level in the Twin Cities [medical devices], Kansas City [animal sciences], New York/New Jersey [pharmaceuticals]- this list goes on. 

Yet- and this is the very premise of the Cultivation Corridor- no single region has firmly established itself as the US’ preferred destination for capital [see #1], talent [#2] and research [#3] in the field of agbioscience and agtechnology. And because of the unmatched research and instructional capabilities in the field offered at Iowa State as well as the innovation infrastructure represented by a rapidly-expanding ISU Research Park, we are positioned as well as any presumable competition to confirm Central Iowa as the agbio and agtech capital of the world. We believe strongly that as the university’s capabilities grow, so grows the competitiveness of Iowa communities seeking ag-based investment and talent.

Setting aside the cluster model and research institution fitness as one of its core asset drivers for a moment, the health and growth of a land grant institution for the economic region in which it sits is of vital importance to overall economic growth prospects for both its companies and economic institutions and for its residents. According to Brookings, individuals between the ages of 30 and 50 who did not attend college could expect to earn less than $30,000 per year. Those whose highest level of educational attainment was a bachelor’s degree earned just under $60,000 per year [an advanced degree-holder can expect over $80,000].

Too, the availability of quality two-year post-secondary education is of vital importance to a region’s economic institutions and its residents. Over a lifetime, the earnings of an associate’s degree recipient are roughly $170,000 higher than those of a high school graduate. [Brookings]

Prevailing discourse for at least the last 25 years stresses the university's place as a principal player in a global system increasingly driven by information, knowledge and ideas. We have said before that there will be winners and there will be losers in the battle for capital, talent and research in the burgeoning agricultural innovation era ahead. To possess one of the world’s finest schools in the field of agricultural bioscience and technology in our region -- and to witness that university grow in the past five years at a pace 11 times inflation and fully half as rapidly as the S&P 500 during one of the strongest bull markets in history -

- is a circumstance no Central Iowan should overlook or underappreciate as we all work to position our region as a global ag innovation player.

Brent Willett, CEcD, is Executive Director of Iowa's Cultivation Corridor.  Tweet him @brent_willett.


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