Picture Atlanta’s Campuses Connected by Transit
Physical links would help us recognize that Atlanta is a higher ed capital

By Michael A. Gerber, President, Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education
Originally published on
The Saporta Report, May 9, 2010

During the recent LINK trip of regional leaders to Phoenix, Arizona State University professor Grady Gammage, referring to Atlanta-area colleges and universities, observed “You have got us beat on every turn. We talk a good game… But we would kill for the quality of institutions that you have.”

Accolades aside, the good professor probably gave Atlanta leaders something to think about. Just what does our region have in higher education? And are we using it to our full advantage?

What we have here is nothing short of phenomenal. Few metro areas enjoy such a concentrated and diverse higher ed mix – world class research institutions, comprehensive universities, liberal arts colleges, and specialized institutions in the arts, medicine, technology and theology.

As the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education (ARCHE) has shown in study after study, our 20 member campuses collectively make Atlanta one of the nation’s top centers for higher education and university research.

For example, in total college students Atlanta ranks 7th among major U.S. metros while Phoenix is 10th. But in the more important metric of degrees awarded (bachelor’s and higher), Atlanta remains 7th while Phoenix drops to 18th. And in fields key to economic development, the contrast is stark: Atlanta ranks 3rd in engineering degrees, for example, while Phoenix is 19 th; and in bioscience degrees, Atlanta is 7th and Phoenix falls to 31st.

For more information on higher education in America’s major cities, click here.

Atlanta has another powerful selling point that is often underappreciated: The campuses here work together.

This is reality, not rhetoric. Name another area of the country in which a student at one campus can enroll for course credit at any of 19 neighboring campuses. You can’t. But Atlanta-area campuses have such an arrangement.

ARCHE members also offer a variety of joint degree programs. And in selected fields, they’ll guarantee graduate program admission to students with an undergrad degree from another member. Students also benefit from library sharing, so that the combined library holdings of all 20 ARCHE institutions are available to any student at a member school.

Another critically important way Atlanta-area universities leverage each others’ strengths is through research collaboration.

Five ARCHE members are in the Georgia Research Alliance, which is considered THE national model for cooperation among research universities, the private sector and state government. GRA recruits top researchers from around the planet to Georgia, supports the development of marketable products out of university labs and facilitates the incubation of new businesses.

What’s the outcome from these institutions cooperating to such a high degree? As Emory President Jim Wagner reminds us, where there’s collaboration, innovation follows. And in a fast-changing global marketplace, innovation is one area in which the U.S. still leads the world.

So: We’ve got something special in Atlanta-area higher education.

Are we using it to our full advantage? Yes and no.

Yes in that economic development officials are bolstering the case for Atlanta and Georgia by telling our higher ed story. Talent is the key to attracting companies to locate or grow their businesses here. And as the degree numbers show, Atlanta higher ed is a national leader in producing highly skilled graduates.

Yes again because, for some companies, research is the key, and Atlanta ranks 5th nationwide with university research spending that exceeds $1 billion annually (Phoenix, by the way, is 40th). One recent example of how this drives economic development is the relocation of NCR, a Fortune 500 company, to Atlanta last summer, which was aided in large part by its desire to work with Georgia Tech in R&D.

Yes in that the institutions have physically transformed the city and region. Look at what Georgia State has done for downtown and Georgia Tech and Emory Hospital for Midtown; how SCAD-Atlanta has expanded the cultural district north of the Woodruff Arts Center; how West End is being reinvigorated by Spelman, Clark Atlanta, Morehouse College and Morehouse School of Medicine. And that’s just a fraction of what’s happening.

Yes in that our campuses are engines of economic growth. Atlanta-area higher ed is a huge industry that generates nearly $12 billion in economic impact from spending by the institutions and their 220,000 students, 67,000 employees and 5.7 million visitors.

That last stat deserves special notice because higher ed is one of the region’s largest but least recognized tourist attractions. May is commencement month, and ARCHE estimates over a quarter-million people will come to our campuses to see someone they know graduate. More than 80,000 of these visitors will stay overnight. These “heads-in-beds” create business for hotels, restaurants, retail outlets and entertainment venues across the region.

The LINK trip showed, however, that Phoenix has something Atlanta needs: a greater physical connection between campuses. A light rail system linking Arizona State and downtown Phoenix has become extremely popular and well used. The lesson is that transportation can help leverage higher ed assets to full advantage.

One of the reasons people here don’t get that Atlanta is a university city is because the region is so large and campuses are not well connected. They see only individual institutions and, as a consequence, don’t recognize that in the Atlanta area higher education collectively is greater than the sum of its parts.

We’ve had no shortage of suitable transit ideas that could address this problem. There have been visions of a brain train from Atlanta to Athens; the BeltLine project would run near many campuses; a modern streetcar from downtown to Buckhead would connect several institutions and could have a link to the Atlanta University Center. These ideas would provide the kind of connectivity that has benefited many other cities. But we have yet to bring these visions to life.

Picture Atlanta’s campuses connected by such transit. Beyond providing mobility, helping the environment and intensifying economic impact, these transportation alternatives would bring an added advantage: they would help us begin to recognize ourselves as the higher education capital we truly are.