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Stanford researchers to look at how local colleges fuel Silicon Valley growth

August 26, 2013
By Mandy Erickson
Students cross the campus at San José State, which plays a vital role in Silicon Valley. (© AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Students cross the campus at San José State, which plays a vital role in Silicon Valley. (© AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
A new study will focus on the role of “broad-access institutions” like San José State in enabling a high-tech hub to flourish.

The university that produces the most engineers in the San Francisco Bay Area may not be the one you thought.

It’s neither Stanford nor UC Berkeley, but San José State, which admits more than half the students who apply. In fact, local “broad-access” institutions like San José State — community colleges, the California State University system, for-profit universities and less-competitive private colleges — have supplied much of the workforce behind the region’s thriving tech and biotech industries.

“Many people have written about Silicon Valley and its success,” said Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Emeritus Michael Kirst. “But when they talk about post-secondary education, they talk about only three institutions: Berkeley, Stanford and UC San Francisco.”

Kirst, along with senior researcher Rebecca London and emeritus professor of sociology W. Richard Scott, is seeking to add to the understanding of what drives Silicon Valley’s success with a study of such broad-access schools, funded by the Bechtel Foundation.

“The foundation was interested in supporting the research project because of the potential of its findings to lead to the building of effective partnerships and policies that enhance regional economic growth,” said Susan Harvey, a program director at the foundation. “We also are interested in gaining a greater awareness of various postsecondary programs and their industry connections to inform our grant making in that area.”

While much of the literature about Silicon Valley focuses on CEOs and entrepreneurs, Kirst added, “There’s a vast mid-level workforce, and a lot of the labor force has been home-grown.”

The researchers are taking a historical look, starting in the 1970s, of changes in the educational institutions that graduate much of the tech workforce. They’ll learn what sort of credentials and degrees the schools have offered and where graduates have found jobs. And they’ll study the connections between broad-access colleges and industry, including how these connections have affected the colleges.

They will also conduct case studies of select broad-access institutions, including interviews with educators and employers. “We’re going to drill down deeper into certain cases, trying to understand how schools have changed, how they see their relationship with students once they’ve graduated,” London said.

The workers who graduate from these institutions include not only engineers, but programmers, lab technicians, business administrators and tech writers. Such mid-level workers, with usually just associate’s or bachelor’s degrees, have kept the region’s economy humming for 40 years.

“This study is about building understanding of the role of broad-access colleges in Silicon Valley,” Kirst said, adding that the findings will allow them to offer specific recommendations to policy makers.

“Our thesis is that this is an unknown and uncovered area. I think as other places try to re-create Silicon Valley, they need to know that there’s more out there than Stanford, UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco.”

Mandy Erickson writes frequently for the Graduate School of Education.