As our innovation economy grows, a great deal of attention often gets placed on the intellectual capital clustered in hot tech markets. A key component of the success of these employment hubs is the presence of a top research university that feeds the local tech market: think Stanford in Silicon Valley, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston’s Route 128 corridor or the University of Texas, in Austin.

A recent article in The Atlantic by Richard Florida, a renowned urban scholar and author, tracked urban innovation and documented the connection between universities and the clustering of highly educated people.

Given that the knowledge business drives the knowledge economy; does that mean that the lack of a University of Maryland at Howard County will prevent Howard County from joining the ranks of those major innovation markets?

One of the important metrics Florida considered was the educational attainment of adults in various markets. He looked at the concentration of adults aged 25 and older with a graduate or professional degree. Across the United States, only 11% of adults have this advanced level of education.


Not surprisingly, significantly higher concentrations exist in hot knowledge economy markets, led by Washington, D.C., at 23%; followed by Silicon Valley (21%); and Boston (19%). Would it surprise you that Howard County’s concentration of adults with advanced degrees is 30%? It surprises most prospects, but that’s just the start.

The Howard County Public School System is a key building block in the foundation of the knowledge business and a source of great pride for its community. In 2014, based on a national ranking of public schools by U.S. News & World Report, 11 of 13 Howard County high schools received a gold or silver ranking, placing it in the top 6% of all high schools in the country. This nationally-renowned school system, with nearly 55,000 students, has an outstanding graduation rate of 93%, with 85% of those graduates attending college.

Educational prowess doesn’t stop there. Howard Community College (HCC), with 14,600 credit students, and another 15,000 non-credit students, has a wide impact on the county’s business sectors. Since 1970, HCC has granted associate degrees, served as a starting point toward graduation from a four-year institution and provided targeted training to workers. Three honors programs serve students in specific specialties, including in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

In response to the needs of the health care sector, HCC recently completed a new Health Sciences building, which offers specialties in a range of clinical programs including nursing. The new Science Engineering and Technology Building, which encompasses 145,000 square feet, will open in 2017 and will offer classes in cybersecurity, engineering, chemistry and other sciences.

Within the Borders

Contrary to popular opinion, HCC isn’t the only institution of higher learning in Howard County, as the county’s knowledge culture has attracted a range of programs from the region’s top universities. The Johns Hopkins University (JHU) has had two satellite locations in the county since 1974, and the School of Education has offered graduate programs for teachers and public safety professionals.

Its facility in Columbia Gateway Business Park offers a variety of offerings that also are open to the public. The JHU School of Engineering for Professionals, at the Dorsey Center, offers graduate degrees and professional certificates. The program has a full complement of lab space and a dataline to the JHU Applied Physics Laboratory. In addition, UMBC has a 23,000-square-foot training center that offers 500 courses and served nearly 5,000 students, many in technical specialties, during the last year, and the University of Maryland University College has a satellite campus at Dorsey station that has been in operation since 2006, with nearly 1,000 students taking courses there, with the three most popular undergraduate programs being in cybersecurity, information technology and business management.

Finally, Loyola University of Maryland’s Columbia campus houses a range of graduate programs, including the Sellinger School of Business and Management, and the schools of Education, Pastoral Counseling and Speech Language Pathology.

Aside from formal educational institutions, the Howard County Library System (HCLS) is one of the most dynamic knowledge hubs in the county. In fiscal 2015, 7.3 million items were borrowed from the system, the highest per capita in the state; and for five consecutive years, HCLS has been ranked by Library Journal among the top 1% of systems nationally, and is the only system in Maryland to be awarded this honor.

This valuable resource has a wide-ranging programming approach that supports students and life-long learners.

From the Feds

Despite all of these intellectual assets, we still occasionally hear from industry location consultants that the lack of a traditional, major research university knocks Howard County off their short list. Just for fun, I often ask these consultants if they know what institution receives the largest amount of federal research funds.

A list of prestigious academic institutions usually follows: Stanford, Michigan, MIT ­— all of them wrong. The largest recipient of federal research funds, which reached $1.2 billion in 2014, is The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which is located in North Laurel, in Howard County. Some of the world’s most advanced intelligence is driven by the 5,600-person staff on APL’s 453-acre campus. This intellectual firepower has led to innumerable advances in defense and space research over its 70-year history.

And, just like other research universities, APL technologies have birthed 35 spinoff companies during the last 15 years.

Also know that APL isn’t the only major research institution in Howard County. The Universities Space Research Association (USRA) is headquartered in Columbia Gateway. USRA is an independent, nonprofit research corporation that combines in-house expertise with university faculty and students to further space science and technology. With 11 locations across the country, it has more than 400 scientific, technical and professional staff, of which 60% have advanced degrees, including 40% with Ph.Ds.

A resident of the county since 1978, USRA purchased an 88,000-square-foot building in Columbia Gateway two years ago, with the assistance of then-Sen. Allen Kittleman, and the HCEDA. USRA’s new home has state-of-the-art facilities, including a recently opened, 18,000-square-foot STEM Education Center [see article on page 1], to provide a dedicated space for high school and middle school students to build and test their robots for competitions.

The combination of all of these assets has created a rich environment for innovation and growth. Now you know that Howard County is, without question, in the knowledge industry.

Mark Thompson is vice president of business development with the Howard County Economic Development Authority. He can be contacted at 410-313-6500 and [email protected].