Tony Frank: On economic impact

In the upcoming days, we’ll be releasing the findings of our first ever economic impact report for the entire Colorado State University System.

Anyone who’s attempted to quantify a university’s “return on investment” knows how challenging it is. We’re not manufacturing a product: We’re educating people so that they can contribute to society in all the ways that educated people do — as teachers, scientists, doctors and nurses, lawyers, artists, communicators, inventors, business leaders, technologists, historians, poets, engineers, geologists, librarians, and the countless other roles that are typically filled by people with higher education.

Of course, universities contribute to the economy in very direct ways, too — as employers and by spending money to keep our operations functioning. On top of that, we also attract people to Colorado from out of state who spend their dollars here, whether as students, conference attendees, or visiting parents and family members. Thousands of jobs across Colorado that aren’t directly connected to a college or university still depend on those institutions to survive.

Our universities also conduct research that offers its own type of ROI, as we’re seeing during the COVID-19 pandemic when years of investment in infectious disease and public health research are coming into play. In fact, this economic impact study itself is the work of faculty from the CSU Fort Collins campus, who worked hard to understand the differences among our campuses and the vital role they each play in the state’s economic ecosystem. Thanks to Drs. Rebecca Hill, Harvey Cutler, and Martin Shields for their leadership on the study, as well as to their graduate research assistants, Lauren Mangus and Kevin Crofton.

The findings from this study are impressive but not surprising when you consider that they include the impacts of more than 112,250 living CSU System alumni who are currently working in Colorado. Here are a few highlights:

  • Nearly 1 in 25 Colorado workers has a degree from one of our CSU System campuses. And those 112,250 alumni working in the state earned an estimated $7.57 billion from their jobs in 2019 — roughly $2.9 billion more than they could have expected in wages if they’d only finished high school.
  • That alumni income translates into more than $209 million in state income tax revenue and $128 million in sales, use, and excise tax revenue — about 3% of the state’s total collections.
  • CSU institutions are an important factor in Colorado’s workforce talent retention – about 50% of the students who moved to Colorado to attend CSU since 2005 have stayed here after graduating. And 86% of Colorado students who attended CSU are still in the state. That’s a huge factor in our state’s future productivity and ability to remain an innovation hub in economically important industries.
  • Campus operations and spending by out-of-state students supports nearly 23,000 Colorado jobs and $237.74 million in state income and sales tax revenue (individual and corporate).

The study also noted the tremendous impact that our campuses in Fort Collins and Pueblo have on their local economies. Our flagship campus is the largest employer in Northern Colorado, and the Pueblo campus is also a major local employer and economic engine. CSU Global, our fully online campus, employs 66 people in Colorado but has been a game-changer for the state by helping to create innovative, nontraditional pathways for people to earn and complete degrees and certificates.

We’re tremendously proud of these impacts, but CSU is certainly not alone. Metropolitan State University in Denver released its own campus study a few weeks ago, and it’s impressive. What all of this shows is how inextricably integrated colleges and universities are within our state economy — and how critical they are to the ability of people to advance their quality of life and participate more fully in the economy and all it has to offer.

That was true before the COVID pandemic, and it’s been notable during the crisis, when these institutions can be islands of stability and sustained employment for communities statewide. We learned from the Great Recession that communities that are home to a college or university rebounded more quickly — and that is a strength for all of Colorado, which has built a system of higher education that is geographically diverse and designed to serve all corners of the state.


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3D magazine with the Winter 2021 cover