02/29/12 — ECU chief: Education is vital to development

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ECU chief: Education is vital to development

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on February 29, 2012 1:46 PM

Rick Niswander, vice chancellor for administration and finance at East Carolina University, discussed the role of public universities in regional economic development before an audience of Goldsboro and Wayne County business and governmental leaders Tuesday at the Wayne County Courthouse.

The event was part of the Downtown Goldsboro Development Corp.'s annual Speakers Forum, which is also sponsored by the Wayne County Developmental Alliance and the City of Goldsboro.

Niswander stood in for ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard, who was ill.

A large portion of those in attendance were East Carolina alumni; however, Niswander did not speak only of East Carolina's importance to the region and state, but also of the entire university and community college system and the effect higher education has on all of North Carolina.

"This state would be fundamentally different without universities," he said, noting the benefits the state-run systems provide. "The value of universities and community colleges is far beyond the cost to run them."

Niswander cited a study by the East Carolina chancellor's office that showed that the money the state spends on higher education leads directly to business development, jobs and economic profit. He said moves to weaken the state's commitment to higher education could have disastrous implications for the state's future.

"Our intellectual infrastructure is deteriorating. We need to repair that to continue competing," he said. "We have to reverse that trend."

He pointed to the university's contributions to society as a whole, citing advances in medicine, therapy and programs for veterans as just a few examples of how the university system serves the state's population.

"The numbers barely scratch the surface," he said. "These are the impacts that matter."

Niswander emphasized the importance of colleges in preparing people for the workforce.

Wayne Community College President Kay Albertson agreed with Niswander and noted that WCC works to prepare students for the same goals as East Carolina and that the two have a strong relationship.

"A majority of our transfer students go to ECU," she said. "Which is a huge impact. We want them to stay in eastern Carolina."

She also said local agencies, such as the Wayne County Development Alliance, have supported WCC through the Wayne Occupational Readiness Keys for Success, or WORKS, program, which offers a certificate program through which students learn specific skills to make them employable.

After the event, Niswander said the best way for Wayne County to support its colleges is to emphasize publicly how important they are.

"The most important thing is to fully embrace education. We are falling behind in many ways as a nation because we are letting our intellectual infrastructure degrade. It's investment used wisely," he said.

He added short-term benefits shouldn't outweigh long-term investments into education.

"You can't turn it on and off like a switch," he said, saying the value of early education, elementary, middle and high schools, along with post-high school learning is absolutely necessary for the country's success in the future.

But it is not enough for only those in academia to call for more investment into education, he said.

"Society has to value that," Niswander said. "The populace has to come to grips with the fact that we're in the situation we are now economically because of decisions made 20 years ago about education."

East Carolina is doing its part across the state, he said, by making its distance education available across North Carolina and contributes chiefly to Wayne County's workforce through its partnerships with Wayne Community College. The Wells Fargo Partnership East program, available through Wayne Community, Wayne County Public Schools and a program at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, helps to prepare teachers to be employed in North Carolina.