September 1, 2018

Research Universities & Regional Economies

By Ross DeVol

The American research university is the nation’s best defense against economic competition from the rest of the world. Research shouldn’t be confined to a library, lab, or lecture hall. When it comes to America’s research universities, across the Heartland and beyond, data show that when universities and communities collaborate, the positive impacts on the workforce, tax base, startup activity and economy opportunity grow exponentially.

Download Full Report


There are multiple channels through which research universities impact regional and national economies. These channels are growing in importance and scale as the fundamental output of research universities becomes ever more valuable to an economy that is fueled by innovative endeavors. Ultimately, the impact of research universities is determined by the degree to which they embed themselves and their graduates in the local business and economic milieu and contribute to the social capital building across numerous dimensions.

Research universities fulfill their mission by creating new knowledge and disseminating it. Universities achieve this by instilling new knowledge in the human capital they develop and through research and discovery that is translated to existing firms or commercialized by startups. This paper explores the processes and metrics to measure the contributions of research universities through their (1) operations, (2) human capital creation, (3) licensing and academic startup activity, (4) business and economic engagement pathways and (5) enhancing quality of place through social capital building and interactions with their communities. How do universities produce knowledge and transfer it by codified and tacit exchange with the private sector? The American research university may be one of the greatest inventions this nation has ever produced.

Research university leadership and economic development officials must understand the multifaceted dimensions to create jobs and economic opportunity in their communities. Monitoring metrics such as those contains in this report could improve focus and positively impact outcomes.

University Technology Transfer and Commercialization Index (1-25)

  1. 1University of Utah
  2. 2Columbia University
  3. 3University of Florida
  4. 4Brigham Young University
  5. 5Stanford University
  6. 6University of Pennsylvania
  7. 7University of Washington
  8. 8Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  9. 9California Institute of Technology
  10. 10Carnegie Mellon University
  11. 11New York University
  12. 12Purdue Research Foundation
  13. 13University of Texas System
  14. 14University of Minnesota
  15. 15University of California, Los Angeles
  16. 16University of MIchigan
  17. 17Cornell University
  18. 18University of Illinois Chicago Urbana
  19. 19University of South Florida
  20. 20University of California, San Diego
  21. 21Arizona State University
  22. 22University of Central Florida
  23. 23Northwestern University
  24. 24Cleveland Clinic
  25. 25University of Pittsburgh

Source: Milken Institute

Ross DeVol

President and CEO, Heartland Forward

Ross DeVol is President and CEO, Heartland Forward and a Fellow, Walton Family Foundation. Heartland Forward’s goal is to promote regional innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems that foster job creation, wage gains and economic growth for the American Heartland.

Heartland Forward will pursue its mission through independent, data-driven research, action-oriented convenings, such as the Heartland Summit, and impactful policy recommendations. Heartland Forward works with universities, colleges, the business community, public policy leaders and philanthropy to analyze resources supporting the startup community and identify workforce and talent gaps.

DeVol is former chief research officer for the Milken Institute where he spent nearly 20 years, an economic think tank headquartered in California. He oversaw research on international, national and comparative regional growth performance; access to capital and its role in economic growth and job creation; and health-related topics.

He has been ranked among the “Superstars of Think Tank Scholars” by International Economy magazine.