For decades in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a railroad was key to a city’s or town’s success. Seattle leaders were crushed when the Northern Pacific chose Tacoma as its western terminus (and quickly worked to remedy it).

In the 21st century, that key is to be a player in the technology economy, preferably at the high end: headquarters and research and development, rather than lightly staffed data centers and increasingly automated semiconductor “fabs.”

And it’s rare to find a winner among metropolitan areas that doesn’t boast one or more major research universities.

It’s certainly true in Seattle with the University of Washington. For example, UW recently clocked in at No. 24 of Pitchbook’s list of the leading 100 universities worldwide in undergraduate alumni who helped found venture capital-backed companies.

UW ranked 30th in graduate alumni doing the same. It came in at 21st and 29th, respectively, among female undergraduate and graduate alumna who founded VC-backed companies.

In total, UW accounted for 56 founders, 413 startups and $11.8 billion in capital raised in the past decade. (The rankings were first reported in the local tech blog GeekWire.)

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UW also ranked fifth in total R&D expenditures by the National Science Foundation (nearly $1.5 billion in 2020, the most recent year for which data is available). It consistently comes in at or near the top of public universities in National Institutes of Health funding and a host of other grants.

Not surprisingly, two of Big Tech’s Big Five are headquartered in the Seattle area, while other premier corporations have major operations here, and the startup scene is hot. It’s highly doubtful Microsoft and Amazon would have been able to grow and thrive without UW.

Good universities attract, advance and spin off talent. They also transfer technology to the private sector.

The worldwide model is Silicon Valley. Stanford University was seminal to turning the agricultural Valley of Heart’s Delight into the planet’s leader in technology. It encouraged the formation of innovative companies at the Stanford Research Park, most notably Hewlett-Packard.

San Francisco also grew into a major technology hub, fueled by the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco, health science campus. As did Boston, with an immense cluster of research universities, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

San Diego grew from a sleepy tourist and Navy town when I lived there into a center of wireless technology thanks to the UC San Diego tech transfer, Connect San Diego.

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According to a report from the University of Virginia, “Universities are becoming important players in 21st century economic development.” They do this by attracting talent and boosting innovation, and “contribute to making attractive, competitive communities — places where people want to live; create and take jobs; raise their families; participate in civic life; and age and retire.”

It’s a worldwide phenomenon, resulting from the rapid growth of universities, with the U.S. having the largest number and attracting students from other countries.

To be sure, a university is built around providing a universal education, not merely science, technology, engineering and math. I studied history and theater at Arizona State University and went to graduate school at Miami University in Ohio, studying American history of the Progressive Era and Great Depression.

And we’re beguiled by a host of “universities” like the University of Phoenix. These were once business schools but have benefited from federal student loans and minimal oversight.

Today universities face controversy about courses, admission quotas and making amends for past grievances. But at their best these schools teach people how to think critically and analytically. To have open minds and always be learning.

This is certainly accomplished by Seattle University and other institutions of higher learning around Puget Sound. Community colleges also play an essential role.

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I’m leaving out Washington State University, which didn’t make the Pitchbook top 100 and isn’t connected to a big city, although it holds the top level of the Carnegie Classification for very high research activity.

Plenty of Cougars enhance Seattle’s economic power and Wazzu has a presence in Everett.

Not everyone needs a college education — something I’m reminded of every time I shell out big bucks for a plumber or electrician.

But my emphasis today is on the role of universities in the economic development of metropolitan areas and cities.

It’s not a guarantee. Retaining graduates is essential.

For example, ASU is one of the largest universities in America by enrollment. But grads seem to scatter. According to the census, in Phoenix, the country’s fifth most populous city, 29.4% of adults over 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher. In Seattle, by contrast, that number is 65%.

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Pittsburgh is home to elite Carnegie Mellon University, but only 45.4% of adults have a bachelor’s or higher.

In both cases, the cities and metro areas don’t compete for the top technology headquarters or assets. This is a challenge to efforts to spread out the tech bounty clustered on the coasts.

Here, funding for higher education has been a challenge. State appropriations went down dramatically during the Great Recession and only gradually recovered. They still haven’t reached prerecession levels. As a result, tuition has risen.

You get what you pay for. So far, it’s been a bargain for Seattle.