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Shirvani says higher college standards will benefit regional economy

North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani gives the keynote address at the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp.'s annual meeting Thursday at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.

GRAND FORKS -- Improving the quality of universities and their students can build up the economies of their surrounding regions, the North Dakota University System chancellor said Thursday.

"Today's university cannot be an ivory tower," said Chancellor Hamid Shirvani, the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. "Universities and the regions in which they are located are inextricably linked, socially and economically."

Shirvani emphasized his and the State Board of Higher Education's plans to improve the university system and their relationship to local economic development.

"When you bring additional high-quality, distinguished faculty in ... they attract high-quality graduate students," he said. "That multiplies the level of research and development."

In turn, Shirvani said, high levels of research contribute to the local economy through technology and business incubation, employment and production.

"I think that, with the North Dakota economy, (the university system) can become great," he said.

The economic impact is already there and primed to grow, Shirvani said. Right now, he said the North Dakota University System has a $4.4 billion impact on the state, and for every one tax dollar invested into the system, the state sees a return of $2.30.

Further growth can be found by raising standards at the state's two research universities, the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University.

"All the ships rise at the same time," he said. "If we bring up the standards at those two schools, the other schools will follow."

Shirvani pointed to graduation rates as a focus for improvement.

Among UND students, 23 percent graduate in four years, while 22 percent of NDSU students finish in that time. Both numbers are well below regional peers such as the University of Minnesota, University of Iowa and University of Nebraska.

The university system has a goal to raise those figures by 15 percent by 2020, and that will bring an influx of highly motivated and educated students.

"There are two ways" to raise enrollment at UND, Shirvani said. "You can just raise the numbers ... and that's not good.

"The other way is to raise standards. At first, (enrollment) will dip. But, if you have high standards, all students will want to get in. That's when you get 20,000, 18,000 students."

EDC President and CEO Klaus Thiessen said that kind of growth is vital to the region's success.

"The bottom line is, we can't grow without people," he said.