Sun. Sep 25th, 2022

It seems for every college, there’s a list about colleges – a ranking. And that’s good, honestly. Knowledge is power and knowing what various people think about how well colleges stack up on various metrics can only be helpful.

There are exceptions of course. Some rankings and lists are really shallow marketing ploys put out by college recruiters and click-bait engines. And the rankings that try to measure and score colleges on their financial return – on their return on investment – those are unhelpful. Colleges and universities should never be measured by how many dollars they can put in your pocket.

Even so, college lists and rankings can be interesting and intriguing and occasionally insightful, and one such list caught my eye recently. This one, from a non-partisan think tank called Heartland Forward, isn’t so much a ranking as it is a research paper scoring how well and how often school take their considerable research prowess and transfer it into markets. It’s a research ranking.

The report authors say they considered, “formal commercialization and tech transfer of intellectual property, we use invention disclosures, the number of licenses and options, licensing income and startups formed; less formalized modes include citations of university articles contained in patents granted to firms. This demonstrates the value of academic research in the private sector.” They adjust for the size of research budgets so the analysis was fairly even.

Like most lists, it’s not the way to rank colleges – it’s just one way. And a pretty interesting one at that.

So, which universities does Heartland Forward say are the best at turning knowledge into market power? The name at the top of the list probably won’t surprise – Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania.

Or at least that should not surprise. Carnegie Mellon is a marketplace powerhouse of computing, engineering and hard core science. It’s every bit the peer of places such as MIT and Cal Tech, perhaps even a notch or two higher. Or at least so thinks Heartland Forward – MIT was number 11, tied with Purdue University; Cal Tech was a very respectable 19.

But it’s the name in the second spot on this list that may an eyebrow – The University of Florida. The school reached this lofty post, the paper found, despite having a research budget ranked just 29th. Though, if we’re looking at what a school did with their money, Carnegie Mellon’s research budget was ranked 59th in the study. So, pretty impressive on both counts.

Rounding out the top five on the list are some other names you know: Columbia, Stanford and Harvard. That’s some rare air for the University of Florida and they are understandably pretty excited.

David Norton, vice president for research at the University said, “UF has a long and successful history in technology transfer, committed to getting better every year. Our tech licensing and start-up incubation enterprise is staffed by knowledgeable professionals who provide best-in-class support and expertise to our faculty, so that they can focus on their science and on solving problems.” And, he said, “When those solutions are ready to move out of the lab and into the world, our team is there to nurture them, driving economic development and realizing tangible impacts from our groundbreaking research.”

It seems so.

The Gators weren’t the only public school doing well at moving research to technology to product. Also, in the top 10 are: North Carolina State at number seven, two University of California schools – San Diego and Los Angeles – at eight and nine. And the University of Minnesota at ten.

I am absolutely biased but any college and university ranking that has five public schools in the top 10 is probably a decent list.

Other notable names on the ranking report include the University of Michigan at 16 and University of Texas at Austin at 20. Princeton was 22 and California, Berkeley was 25.

It’s a fun list, but one that’s not purely for sport or curiosity.

Universities are significant, if chronically underrated, drivers of economic development. Businesses, especially technology enterprises, don’t just capitalize on the ideas and intellectual innovations coming from our universities, they rely on them. Many exist because of those university investments and outcomes. Moreover, without our universities, the advantages we enjoy in technology and engineering and in the sciences simply would not be. In other words, our national economic viability and vitality have been built on the foundations of our universities.

With so many people wanting to say such negative things about our colleges and universities so often, getting the public to think, even for a moment, about the indispensable roles that these institutions play is important. That makes this particular list a real value.

So, sure, take a moment to look the list over. Marvel at the success of some schools, especially those doing the most with less. Question why some are a little lower. Then think about where we’d be without these schools doing the work of moving innovation from idea to inventory. We simply would not be here without them.



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