The Avenue

Old School: Land Grant Universities in the Global Economy

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Michigan State UniversityIn places like Michigan, where the loss of auto and other manufacturing jobs has been so numerous and painful, China is viewed as a job-stealing, economy-weakening threat. But in Lansing, Michigan State University is the fulcrum of new business, research, and learning partnerships that are bringing Chinese spending, investors, and, thus, new jobs to mid-Michigan--and a new round of increased diversity and immigrant-led economic renewal to the local community.

Leading science and technical universities, such as MSU, have always been a draw for foreign students. Today, 4,200 international students, including 2,300 Chinese students-- a 150 percent increase from that nation in recent years--attend MSU. These students directly contribute over $95 million to the mid-Michigan economy through tuition, fees, room, board, and other expenditures.

And they keep contributing even after they graduate, because they often stick around and start new businesses and careers in places like mid-Michigan. In fact 33 percent of all high-tech firms created in Michigan over a recent 12 year period were founded by immigrants--the third highest share in the nation (California is first).

China is also a natural source of immigrant investors for Lansing’s new businesses.  Working with MSU and regional economic development organizations, including Prima Civitas, a non-profit foundation geared to facilitate economic development, a group of local entrepreneurs helped create a regional immigrant investment zone, headquartered in nearby Midland. This EB-5 economic zone, one of over 100 springing up in metros across the country, allows immigrant investors who bring substantial capital to local business expedited visas and access to U.S. residency. Of the 3000 possible EB5 visas available nationally, China took over 1300 last year and is expected to close in on 1500 this year.

Why? One reason is that Chinese and other investors still want their children to go to America’s great universities for a shot at the American dream. A visa and a chance for resident status (and perhaps citizenship down the road) is still America’s greatest beacon.

And it makes sense to capitalize on this dynamic and to target China’s emerging markets and emerging wealth and connect it to places like mid-Michigan to grow new jobs. (The old Willie Sutton adage comes to mind: “Why do I rob banks? That is where the money is!”)

Lansing also recently launched an International Trade Center (ITC) under the auspices of the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce to coordinate the numerous organizations involved in international trade in the mid-Michigan region. The ITC has brought one-stop international business assistance to the business community, integrating federal, state, and local export promotion and economic development groups, business, and the resources of MSU. A recent team effort enabled the export of agriculture seed stocks just developed by a Lansing area firm to (of all places) Syria.  

Lansing area leaders are now seeking state designation that paves the way for businesses throughout Michigan to qualify for investment through the mid-Michigan regional EB-5 center.  The first investment opportunity to qualify seeks $9 million for a new wireless internet service provider in Frankenmuth. Michigan has 12 qualified investors looking at this opportunity, and local leaders are traveling to China in September to recruit more investors.    

The link between MSU’s land-grant “ag-school” past and what President Lou Ann Simon calls its “world grant” cross-cultural future may soon take shape in bricks and mortar. While cows from its world-leading agricultural research station still graze happily just off-campus, a former retail complex adjacent to MSU is the site of a proposed new Chinese cultural center, a symbol of the repurposing of the school’s agricultural extension mission to today’s potent international connection building.

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