Charleston brand should include higher ed, economist says

By Matt Tomsic
Published April 4, 2013

Public universities in the Lowcountry had a $4.4 billion economic impact during fiscal year 2010-2011 and supported 41,000 jobs, according to a study by the Charleston Regional Development Alliance.

The CRDA released the results today and hosted a panel with leaders of the College of Charleston, Medical University of South Carolina, The Citadel, Charleston Southern University and Trident Technical College.

The report analyzed the four public universities as a whole and broke out Charleston Southern’s impact.

For fiscal year 2010-2011, public universities provided $2.1 billion in labor income, attracted 6,000 out-of-state students and 135,000 out-of-town visitors, employed 16,300 directly and awarded 6,100 degrees and certificates.

If the four universities were combined, it would be the second-largest employer in the region behind Joint Base Charleston.

Charleston Southern had a $141.7 million impact, supports 1,500 jobs and provides more than $53.5 million in labor income.

The average wage for higher education workers is 75% higher than the average regional wage, and higher education employees make up 5% of the region’s labor force, said Travis James, vice president and economist for TXP, an economic analyst firm that performed the study.

“Higher education has a huge economic impact on this area today,” James said. “I don’t think Charleston is branded as a higher education region. It should be.”

After CRDA released the results, university leaders had a panel discussion about its impacts and the challenges they face.

George Benson, president of the College of Charleston, said students also impact the Lowcountry’s quality of life by volunteering, interning and fundraising. The college hosts nearly 300 performances in the arts each year and provides about 85% of the venues for Spoleto.

The Medical University of South Carolina is reversing the Lowcountry’s brain drain, said Dr. Ray Greenberg, president of MUSC, by attracting talent from across the country that has impacted the way South Carolina hospitals treat stroke victims and the way HIV is prevented and treated across the world. Other MUSC professors and researchers have pioneered MRI technology to study Alzheimer’s disease and treatments for blindness.

“We used to have a brain drain,” Greenberg said. “We’re talking about in the last two years, Johns Hopkins, NYU and Columbia. That’s where people are coming from to come to Charleston now. We’re attracting the best brains in the country.”

The Citadel is working on a mechanical engineering program that could help prepare students for careers at the Boeing Co. and other manufacturers, said Sam Hines, provost and dean of the college.

“My perspective is that the colleges and universities have always been important to this city,” Hines said. “At times, we have stepped up, all of these institutions.”

Charleston Southern has invested $41 million into its education services and also provides dual engineering degrees with The Citadel, the University of South Carolina and Clemson, said Jairy Hunter, president for the university. Charleston Southern is also starting a master’s degree in computer science, responding to the needs of a growing Lowcountry tech industry.

Trident Tech has more in common with the Lowcountry’s universities, said Mary Thornley, president of the college, than it does with the state’s other technical colleges, and it provides value for its students. Thornley said any student can attend any program for $750. The college has the largest nursing program in the state and 94% of its graduates stay in the Lowcountry.

The Lowcountry’s higher education sector also faces challenges and sees needs the community as a whole must address.

Thornley said Trident Tech’s state funding has been cut by 46%; and the General Assembly hasn’t allocated new money to the SmartState program, which allows the state’s universities to recruit endowed chairs with specific areas of expertise, Greenberg said.

Benson said the College of Charleston is working to produce more computer science graduates and sees a need for more incubator space.

“This place is hot right now,” Benson said. “We’re going to need that energy. Incubator space will help us with that.”

The business community also needs to recognize that the universities have many experts who cover many fields.

“When you have need for expertise, rather than assuming that the definition of an expert is somebody who’s at least 100 miles away, look to these institutions and ask the questions,” Hines said. “I think you’ll find that there’s a wealth of talent among the faculty and staff at these institutions, many of whom are serving as experts in other communities.”

Greenberg said the state needs to capture the “creative class,” examine its economic incentives packages and attract more venture capital.

“We need to create structures to promote entrepreneurialism,” Greenberg said. “We need to look at economic incentives and economic development that are not the traditional incentives to recruit big manufacturing companies here, which are all about tax credits. To a company that’s a startup that doesn’t have any revenue stream, a tax credit is worthless. What they really need is other kinds of incentives.”

Benson said business leaders and the community need to keep growing the Lowcountry’s economy.

“These students want to stay here, but they have to leave because there aren’t enough jobs,” he said. “That is beginning to change. Let’s not be afraid of growth. We can certainly protect the core historic district, but out around the historic district, we need to be willing to grow.”

Reach Matt Tomsic at 843-849-3144.

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