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Study shows billions in economic impact of Northeast Ohio public universities

Eman Abu-Khaled
Ideastream Public Media
People walk at Kent State University's main campus.

An economic impact study commissioned by the Inter-University Council of Ohio finds that Ohio’s 14 public universities have an outsized impact on the economy of the state, including in Northeast Ohio.

The schools – including the University of Akron, Cleveland State University and Kent State University - also argue their degrees are offering significant return on investment to students despite rising costs of tuition over the years and use data from the study to back it up.

Overall, the study – conducted by the Lightcast labor analytics firm – found that Ohio’s public universities had almost $69 billion in total statewide economic impact, representing 8.8% of Ohio’s total gross state product (the sum of value added from all industries in the state). According to the study, it arrived at that estimate from the combined operations, construction, clinical, research, entrepreneurial, visitor and student spending related to public universities, adding in the value of volunteerism and the “enhanced productivity of their alumni.”

Laura Lanese, president and CEO of the Inter-University Council of Ohio, an organization that seeks to foster collaboration between Ohio’s public universities, said she hopes the study – which the IUC paid $120,000 for - catches the attention of lawmakers, and encourages them to invest further.

“We are in the bottom quarter of states that invest in higher education,” she said. “And so that's the main reason that we wanted to do this economic impact study, so we can prove to people who are funding us that this is a great investment.”

But concerns continue to persist among many about the cost of higher education, which has increased significantly over the last few decades. Recognizing that, Lanese said Ohio’s public universities have implemented tuition guarantee programs, which hold the cost of tuition at the same level for the first four years of an undergraduate student’s time in college.

“That has put some automatic cost controls in, as well as universities have gotten much more financially lean over the years to try to balance our own budgets and to get a better product out to our students, while trying to keep up high-quality instruction,” she said.

Ohio sits in the middle of the pack in the country in terms of costs of tuition and fees across all colleges and universities (not just public universities), according to the Education Data Initiative. Meanwhile, enrollment has continued to decline at every public university in Northeast Ohio in recent years, presenting further challenges for those institutions.

Still, the study found that there are plenty of other benefits that the state receives from Ohio’s public universities: About $598 million in added income to workers due to universities construction spending; $5.9 billion in spending on salaries and operations for university-affiliated clinics and medical centers; research spending generated $1.9 billion in added income for Ohio’s economy; and start-up and spin-off companies related to universities added $1.7 billion in income for the Ohio economy.

Some quick takeaways for some of Northeast Ohio’s universities – which sought university-specific economic data from Lightcast for the 2021-2022 year - are below. Lightcast cautioned against comparing the numbers of one institution to another in its main report, considering every institution is unique and exists in its own sociopolitical climate.

Cleveland State

Cleveland State has a $3 billion overall economic impact on Northeast Ohio and the state as a whole, with the university or its students supporting an estimated 36,843 jobs in the region.

The study estimated that CSU graduates receive an additional $6.80 in additional lifetime earnings for each dollar they spend on college. CSU on its websites estimates an in-state, fall 2022 freshman’s average cost of attendance is $31,572 per-year, including tuition, room and board, and living expenses. Four years of those costs would equal out to $126,288 total to complete a four-year degree; according to the study, that would equal out to a total of $858,758 in total additional lifetime earnings.

The study found taxpayers receive a similar benefit, receiving about $6.80 for each dollar of public money invested. Further, CSU graduates create a societal value of $19.10 for each dollar invested; that’s based on alumni’s increased lifetime earnings, increased business output and social savings in reduced healthcare and criminal justice system-related costs.

“With more than 140,000 CSU alumni — the majority of whom reside in Northeast Ohio — CSU is an economic engine,” CSU President Laura Bloomberg said in a news release. We contribute substantially to the region’s workforce who, in turn, contribute to their communities.”

University of Akron

The University of Akron similarly had an estimated $3 billion impact, centered mostly on its six-county Northeast Ohio service area, consisting of Cuyahoga, Portage, Medina, Stark, Summit and Wayne counties, with the university or its students supporting an estimated 36,324 regional jobs. The study estimates a University of Akron degree offers students a $6.70 gain in lifetime earnings per every $1 spent on their education.

The University of Akron’s website doesn’t break out the total estimated cost of attendance – including living expenses – like CSU’s website does, but with tuition, fees and room and board, the average cost for one year for an in-state, 2022 fall semester student adds up to about $23,100 per year, or $92,400 for four years. That would equal out to $619,080 in additional lifetime earnings for that student once they graduate.

The study found taxpayers receive a $4.80 return on each tax dollar invested in the institution, with Akron graduates creating a societal value of $18.20 for each dollar invested.

“We are extremely committed to educating our students and connecting them to world-class employers to help foster continued growth in career earnings,” University of Akron President Gary L. Miller said in a news release. “We also view our role as an economic generator very seriously, rigorously supporting workforce development in the region and championing innovation and entrepreneurship that makes a difference in Northeast Ohio and the City of Akron.”

Kent State University

Kent State University had a higher suggested economic impact, about $5.4 billion, supporting almost 72,000 jobs in the Northeast Ohio region, according to its economic impact report for 2021-2022.

Kent graduates also reportedly receive a significant return on investment with their degrees, about $5.80 per every dollar spent. The average cost of attendance for an in-state fall 2022 student was about $30,922 per-year, according to Kent State's website, equaling out to an additional $717,390 in earnings over their career for a four-year degree.

The study found taxpayers receive a $4 return on each tax dollar invested in the institution, while Kent graduates create a social benefit of $14.70 per dollar invested in the institution.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.