Cut to Invest: Support the Designation of 20 “U.S. Manufacturing Universities”

Robert D. Atkinson and Stephen Ezell

Congress should establish an initiative to designate 20 institutions of higher education as “U.S. Manufacturing Universities” as part of a needed push to strengthen the position of the United States in the increasingly innovation-driven global economy. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges to promote learning in “agriculture and the mechanic arts.” These colleges played a key role in enabling the United States to later take the lead in the mechanization of agriculture and the industrialization of the economy. Today, the challenge is even greater as America competes against a wide array of nations seeking to win the race for global innovation advantage, especially in advanced manufacturing. A new cadre of federally-designated “Manufacturing Universities” that revamp their engineering programs with particular emphasis on work that is relevant to manufacturing firms while providing engineering students with real-world work experience should be part of the solution.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, states and metropolitan areas throughout the United States have come to recognize the importance of cultivating regional economies that are strong in production, innovation, and global trade. In contrast to the debt-driven, consumption-oriented economy of years past, this new economic growth model places great emphasis on innovation activity and advanced manufacturing capacity, which together improve the nation’s competitiveness in the global marketplace. 

As the largest internationally traded sector, manufacturing is critical to the health of the U.S. economy. It is simply impossible to have a vibrant national economy without a globally competitive traded sector. And for U.S. metro areas, where over 80 percent of manufacturing jobs and 95 percent of high-tech manufacturing jobs are located, such an advanced manufacturing revival is particularly critical.


As a relatively high-cost nation, the only way the United States can regain manufacturing competitiveness is through innovation and productivity, both of which are driven by engineering capabilities that are cultivated, in part, by the nation’s institutions of higher education. University-based engineering programs can play a critical role in supporting advanced research, particularly in areas of relevance for manufacturers, and can help train the highly skilled workforce that advanced manufacturers need.

Given these challenges, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings propose that the federal government support the designation of a core of approximately 20 leading “Manufacturing Universities.” As part of this designation, academic institutions would receive an annual award from the National Science Foundation, ideally at least $25 million per year, plus prioritization of their other applications in the awarding of National Science Foundation (NSF) grants.

Designated universities would have several responsibilities. First, they would be required to revamp their engineering programs much more around manufacturing engineering, with particular emphasis on work that is relevant to industry. This would include more joint industry-university research projects; more training of students that incorporates manufacturing experiences through cooperative education or other programs; and a Ph.D. program focused on turning out more engineering Ph.D.s who would work in industry. These universities would view doctoral training as akin to high-level apprenticeships (as is often the case in Germany) and would not allow the conferral of a Ph.D. unless one has done some work in industry. Likewise, criteria for faculty tenure would consider professors’ work with and/or in industry equally as much as their number of scholarly journal publications. In addition, their business schools would focus on manufacturing issues, including management of production, and integrate closely with the engineering program. One can imagine a number of leading engineering universities—Caltech, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, Lehigh, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Michigan, Purdue, Stanford, and others—readily transforming themselves to embrace this designation.

One possible model (albeit on a small scale) is the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, which reimagined its engineering education and curriculum to prepare students “to become exemplary engineering innovators who recognize needs, design solutions, and engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world.” Olin’s results have been impressive. Its new method of teaching engineering has been widely praised among engineering firms, and, on a per-student-graduated basis, Olin graduates start more new businesses than MIT graduates. Olin is a one good model for how the United States can transform its universities into entrepreneurial factories while encouraging the development of completely new schools based on the needs of the current workforce.

These Manufacturing Universities would complement, not duplicate, any national manufacturing institutes established under proposed legislation to create a National Network of Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). The NNMI institutes would be private-sector led and, while affiliated with universities, would not attempt to change how university engineering programs function. In contrast, the Manufacturing Universities proposal would work to ensure that universities themselves function in ways that are more supportive of the U.S. manufacturing economy.

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