"Eastern North Carolina Needs Us": The economic impact of ECU

Published September 7, 2023

By Higher Ed Works

By Leslie Boney

When it first opened in 1909, the new, two-year East Carolina Teachers Training School had a critical, if modest, goal: Train teachers for the classrooms of Eastern North Carolina.

But then-former Governor Thomas Jordan Jarvis sensed even then that the tiny school might grow: “We can never begin to calculate,” he said, “The value it will be to North Carolina.” 

114 years later, East Carolina University and ECU Health (a joint venture between ECU’s Brody School of Medicine and Vidant Health) have begun to calculate that value. Separate studies by ECU (in 2019) and ECU Health (in 2022) have produced impressive numbers: between them, the entities generate an annual economic impact of $6.9 billion a year ($2.5 billion for ECU; $4.4 billion for ECU Health) and support more than 57,000 jobs in the 29-county region (27,131 for ECU; 30,212 for ECU Health).

The enterprises have become an indispensable part of the economic success of the region surrounding Greenville: ECU and ECU Health are the largest employer, the largest source of highly skilled employees, the central source of healthcare and a linchpin of the region’s economic development efforts.

 It’s simple, ECU Chancellor Philip Rogers told the Greenville Daily Reflector shortly after his installation in 2022: “The rural region of Eastern North Carolina needs us to deliver.”

How to improve the economic health of its surrounding region is not always obvious, says Sharon Paynter, Acting Chief Research and Engagement Officer at ECU, but it often involves finding ways to graduate students who want to stay in the region.

“Economic impact comes from people who teach and do primary care, but also from business owners, engineers, IT professionals. (And) we put so much emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship because that’s what our communities need … what really changes a community is small, innovative businesses.”

The economic impact of a university plays out on several different levels. Some can be quantified; others can’t. 

On-campus student and visitor spending: This fall, about 27,000 students are studying at ECU. They’ll spend roughly $371 million on tuition, books, food and other expenses. Parents and other visitors to campus will spend at least $36 million.1 

Off-campus education and retraining: ECU has also been a pioneer in bringing education directly to students: it is the largest in-state provider of online education in North Carolina, and it is paying increasing attention to adult education. Both of these areas should be an essential part of any university’s future strategy, UNC System President Peter Hans told the UNC Board of Governors during a meeting at ECU in November 2022: “The need for people to retool and reconsider their career paths is only going to grow. We must demonstrate that our public universities are ready to meet that task, and we have a great deal to learn from ECU’s success in expanding online access.”

Research: ECU ranks in the top 20% of all US universities in the amount of sponsored research it conducts, reporting about $82 million in the latest year (more than double the amount reported in their 2019 study). In some cases that research results in new companies; 42% of those research projects include efforts to directly engage community members.2

 Graduates: Each year ECU graduates about 6,500 new students armed with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.3 ECU, says Paynter, tries to make sure it gets students ready for economic opportunities that already exist and ones they might create themselves: “As some of the key industries have grown in our region – biopharma, advanced manufacturing, aerospace, as well as healthcare, education and others – we’ve put our emphasis on being good partners….making sure (our graduates) have the skills to do the job.”

VANN ROGERSON sees the economic impact of the university in a broader context. As head of the NC East Alliance, he is charged with recruiting new companies to the region and ensuring existing companies get the workforce they need to grow. He turns to ECU for at least three kinds of help:

Strategy: In 2020, NC East Alliance began working with ECU to create a comprehensive strategy to ensure that graduates at all levels (K-12, community college and university) have the knowledge and skills companies in the region need to grow. Having top thinkers from ECU and ECU Health help design the system, he says, “Gives us a huge amount of horsepower to help us think through that strategy.”
Workforce retention: Companies in rural areas often have trouble keeping workers over the long term if they don’t have existing ties to the location. Rogerson notes that large employers like the Fleet Readiness Center East, a giant aviation maintenance and repair center headquartered in Havelock, like hiring ECU engineering graduates because they already have ties to the area and are more likely to stay.
Corporate recruitment: ECU’s help is also critical when it comes to recruiting new companies to the region, says Rogerson. “When you’re trying to convince someone from anywhere in the world that this is a place worth living, you’ve gotta show them the workforce they can draw on, the healthcare they’ll be getting, the cultural events they can see. You’ve gotta have someone like ECU willing to show up with you to make that case.”
Paynter says the university is committed to ‘showing up’ – as a leader and a partner in economic development.

“Being a partner is a huge part of what we are,” she notes. “We believe our mission is to serve.

“We have to do that work not all on our own at the university, but … in partnership with others.”

Leslie Boney is a writer based in Raleigh. He has served as director of policy research and strategic planning at the NC Department of Commerce, Vice President for International, Community and Economic Engagement at the UNC System, and Vice Provost for Outreach and Engagement at NC State University.