Education gap hits state tech ranking

Everyone knows how bogus rankings of “Top Tech States,” “Leading Venture Capital Locales” and the like can be – especially journalists like myself who’ve participated in creating such lists, and been complicit in helping to publicize them. The list-maker’s biased selection criteria or a single big deal or other anomaly often can push an otherwise undistinguished contender up the ranks or sink a usually strong performer.

But it’s still worth considering the implications for a state like Colorado when its ranking declines in an apparently credible study such as the one released this week reviewing how well U.S. states are transforming from the old “smokestack chasing” industrial economic model to a “new economy” approach of creating and retaining high value-added, high-wage jobs.

The 2007 State New Economy Index, issued this week by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, shows Colorado falling to No. 9 from No. 3 over the past five years.

Roger Fillion of the Rocky Mountain News reported Wednesday that the big reason for the state’s decline is a lack of support for higher-education funding. No surprise there.

Colorado education officals contend that our higher education system needs an additional $832 million this year just to meet the average state funding of their peers across the country – and that’s just to be average. As the Denver Post recently editorialized: “A new funding stream for higher education must be found.”

A likely source of funds is on display just up the road in Wyoming, which collected six times more severance taxes on oil and gas production last year than Colorado. The University of Wyoming’s Laramie campus has $200 million in construction projects planned or underway, while Colorado college presidents must go begging to the state legislature for enough cash to fix their leaky roofs. Meanwhile, Wyoming provides nearly four times more higher-education funding per student than Colorado.

What’s needed is an increase in the overall mineral royalty and severance tax rates, at least enough to make Colorado’s tax rates comparable to other Rocky Mountain states.

Adequate severance taxes are important not just as a new education funding source, but to mitigate the impacts being felt here on Colorado’s West Slope, where the gas industry is exploiting a vast store of non-renewable resources that will eventually be depleted, leaving behind scarred landscapes, polluted watersheds and a legacy of unmet social and infrastructure needs.

But enough of that soapbox topic for now. Surely I’m preaching to the choir here. By now, everyone in the tech industry understands the connection between education and the economy. Silicon Valley certainly understands the importance of its proximity to Stanford, UC Berkeley and CalTech.

When will Colorado realize that world-class universities are an essential underpinning for our long-term success in today’s emerging “new economy?”

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