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Higher education a smart investment for region

Colleges and universities are hotbeds of knowledge, the central commodity in today's economy and the kernel of innovation that generates new products and discoveries, fuels existing and start-up businesses and produces a competitive and highly skilled work force.

While this concept is not new, a recent report by the University at Buffalo Regional Institute and the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University at Albany backs it up with numbers. The report, "How SUNY Matters," focuses on the economic impact of the State University of New York.

Generating a minimum annual $20 billion economic impact in the state, the 64-campus system is an economic force. In Western New York, eight SUNY institutions create a $3.7 billion ripple effect every year. That's a more than a five-to-one return on investment for state taxpayer dollars.

SUNY is also the linchpin of the Western New York work force. The 235,000 SUNY alumni living in the region represent one-third of the entire regional labor force. More than 15,000 college graduates emerge from the region's SUNY institutions every year -- that's two-thirds of all college graduates in Western New York.

More importantly, SUNY builds the region's economic future as it advances innovation through research and new discoveries related to its core academic mission. The region's SUNY campuses secured more than $250 million in research dollars in 2008-09 (the bulk from federal grants), and in one year generated 113 invention disclosures, 21 patents, 10 spin-offs and 19 start-ups.

On the ground, UB's New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics & Life Sciences is a hub of more than 250 scientists in downtown Buffalo pursuing cutting-edge medical research and, potentially, the next treatment, technology or business. Meanwhile, SUNY Fredonia opened a Business Technology Incubator linking start-up businesses with faculty and student expertise, lab space and technology.

Yet there are opportunities to do more -- fostering a stronger culture of entrepreneurship among faculty and staff, expanding research campuses and aligning degree programs with the work force needs of emerging industries. SUNY institutions in Western New York are stepping up, with efforts as diverse as Niagara County Community College's plan to build a hospitality training center in an abandoned mall in Niagara Falls, and the UB 2020 proposal to advance medical research and innovation by placing students next to health care practitioners on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has called for economic growth in the state to be "higher-ed driven," and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher wants to make SUNY "the engine of New York's economic revitalization." This latest report shows that's the right course, and a wise investment in the economic future for our region and state.

Kathryn A. Foster is director of the University at Buffalo Regional Institute.

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