College town: How area schools impact the community

Higher education institutions bring jobs, money, culture, talent, ideas and more


The total statewide economic impact of the University System of Georgia’s 35 institutions in fiscal year 2012:

• $14.1 billion in output (sales)

• $9.9 billion in gross regional product

• $7 billion in income

• 139,263 full- and part-time jobs

Top four schools:

• Georgia Tech: $2.57 billion in economic impact, accounting for 20,869 jobs

• University of Georgia: $2.16 billion in economic impact (22,196 jobs)

• Georgia State University: $1.63 billion in economic impact (13,710 jobs)

• Kennesaw State University: $926 million in economic impact (8,788 jobs)

Source: Board of Regents

In September, Beverly Tatum and other city leaders took part in a trade mission to Brazil to promote higher education in Atlanta. What’s a college president doing on a trade mission, you might ask?

“The Brazilian government has plans to send 100,000 students to the United States, and we wanted to introduce them to what Atlanta has to offer,” said Tatum, president of Spelman College and chair of the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education. “Higher education in Atlanta is alive and well. There is so much going on at each campus, and collectively, it’s a very exciting story.”

Metro Atlanta offers tremendous choices in postsecondary education. Few cities can match the quality and diversity of its 66-plus higher education institutions that enroll more than 275,000 students. The list includes Emory University (ranked 20th by U.S. News & World Report in 2013) and Georgia Tech, one of the nation’s finest engineering schools. Georgia State, with its renowned business college, is one of the fastest-growing public universities in the nation. Spelman College and Morehouse College are top-ranked historically black schools.

Add in Kennesaw State, Georgia’s third-largest university; and nationally known programs at Mercer University, Savannah College of Art & Design-Atlanta, Agnes Scott College, Morehouse School of Medicine and Columbia Theological Seminary — to mention a few — and you have a powerful engine for a city’s growth, innovation and quality of life.

Higher education makes a significant contribution to Georgia’s economy. University System institutions contributed $14.1 billion to the state’s economy in 2012, according to a Board of Regent’s report. Those institutions also accounted for 139,263 full- and part-time jobs, 3.2 percent of the state’s work force. Metro Atlanta sees a large proportion of that economic boon.

“The direct spending on goods and services, as well as capital improvements, is huge, but that doesn’t take into account the money spent by students, visitors and employees in hotels, restaurants and stores,” said Michael Gerber, founder and president of Cross Channel Initiatives, and 14-year former president of the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education. “Students and their families come to visit Atlanta schools year-round, but every May they convene at one of the city’s largest conventions known as commencement. Morehouse School of Medicine, alone, graduates maybe 60 to 70 MDs a year, but the school fills 4,000 seats at graduation.”

Research center

Additional economic gain comes from research. Most cities are lucky to have one major research university, Gerber noted. Metro Atlanta has the University of Georgia, Clark Atlanta University, Emory University, Georgia Tech and Georgia State University all working individually and collectively through the Georgia Research Alliance. Since it was founded in 1990, the GRA has leveraged $595 million of state funding into $2.6 billion in federal and private investment; started more than 300 companies; and added more than 6,000 highly skilled jobs to Georgia.

“Research not only brings new money to the state, but it brings a steady stream of new talent and ideas into our marketplace,” Gerber said.

Forbes recently named Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Center one of the top 12 business incubators that are changing the world. By creating a highly educated work force and providing access to cutting-edge research and development, these universities foster a nurturing environment for innovation. Atlanta was ranked the No. 2 metropolitan area for entrepreneurial activity by the Kauffman Foundation in 2012, according to the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

“Knowledge creation and its real-life implications come at Atlanta from all directions,” Tatum said.

“The cordial alliance between the University System and the Technical College System of Georgia is often overlooked, but it is a huge asset for us,” Gerber said. “The two systems work cooperatively to educate and train Georgia’s work force and contribute to the state’s economic development.”

A good relationship between town and gown is another overlooked benefit that adds to metro Atlanta’s rich quality of life, Tatum said. Colleges and universities — with their diverse student populations, concerts, theater, art and lectures — create a more vibrant, international culture. Think Shakespeare’s plays at Oglethorpe University, dance and music at Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University, or mummies at Emory’s Michael C. Carlos museum.

Those same campuses also provide willing hands for charitable causes.

“Every Atlanta University Center school requires community service. Our students and faculty have contributed thousands of hours of service to local nonprofit organizations,” Tatum said.

Woven into city’s fabric

“Higher education is foundational to who we are as a city and to our well-being,” said Katie Kirkpatrick, senior vice president, Business Higher Education at the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “Education, economic development and quality of life are all tied together to make Atlanta a great place to learn, work, build a business, grow a family and enjoy life — but we have not done a very good job of telling that story.”

Business Higher Education is one of four pillars of the chamber’s latest five-year strategic plan to jumpstart Atlanta’s economy. Since January, Kirkpatrick has been heading the initiative to amplify the connections between the business community and higher education to ignite job growth.

“We graduate great students — the kind employers want — and that helps attract new business to Atlanta, but it also can offer existing companies access to research and talent to grow their businesses,” she said.

With help from large corporations, Kirkpatrick recently created a tool kit for small and midsize companies to create internship programs that will attract new talent and give students work experience with an Atlanta-based company, which could induce them to stay after they graduate. An initial event brought seven universities and 165 companies together to start a new ripple of internship connections.

Kirkpatrick is also working to pair university research and development efforts with the local business community, which can bring those innovations to market.

“The entrepreneurial energy that comes from universities and companies working together is so palpable here and so valuable to our community,” she said. “We think that the impact of higher education on Atlanta has been a well-kept secret. It’s time to let it out.”