Private colleges, universities, critical to Connecticut’s economic future

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The entrance to Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

As our governor and state legislators continue wrestling with budget shortfalls, declining revenue, corporate exodus and ongoing economic erosion, it is important to pause and catch our breaths. As a state, we must carefully and honestly examine our strengths and weaknesses, and ensure perspective before making serious cuts to financial programs and institutions that actually hold the answer for addressing many of Connecticut’s financial woes.

For example, it may be tempting to slash financial aid and grants to colleges and universities, or to consider taxing institutions of higher learning and hospitals. But if you consider where many of Connecticut’s current jobs, future growth and evolving financial infrastructure reside, clogging the engines that actually help drive our economy would be illogical and self-sabotaging.

Helping assure students’ chances at rewarding careers in competitive, high-demand industries requires degrees that match the needs of current and future employers. According to a Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce Report, 70 percent of future jobs in Connecticut will require a bachelor’s degree or higher. Fortunately, our state has the educational foundation to help satisfy this goal: In Connecticut, private non-profit colleges and universities award the highest percentage of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) bachelor’s and advanced degrees in the state.

But that is only a small part of the value our private colleges and universities offer Connecticut residents and taxpayers. These institutions have become anchors for the towns, communities and regions where they reside. In addition to a rich array of education offerings, we provide easy, affordable access to performing arts, athletic events and cultural assets like libraries, museums, lectures and programs open both to students and the public.

The communities fortunate to have a local college or university nearby or within their borders profit from the symbiotic value of these partnerships. Our programs and attractions draw visitors from across the region, who see these communities as desirable places to live, and who patronize local restaurants, stores and merchants.

Private colleges and universities pump millions of dollars into local economies and state coffers. Total direct spending by private universities, by university students, by our employees and visitors is estimated in excess of $13 billion annually. Additionally, induced spending – which is the additional value of employment and expenditures of local industries and organizations that result because of direct spending – is estimated at over $8 billion.

Beyond profiting from a talented local job pool, employers benefit by using colleges and universities as incubators for research and cooperative service relationships. These include engineering and business consulting, co-ops and internships, medical, hospitality and marketing services and much more. Companies and organizations see the region as part of their identity, fueled, in part, by access to local institutions of higher learning. These valuable relationships are generally low-cost and readily available, and highly experienced faculty consultants and advisers ensure continuity, consistency and a steady stream of enthusiastic, creative talent.

It is fair to say that in addition to being magnets for economic development and retention, we also serve as drivers of urban renaissance. Our support for and involvement in troubled cities is far-reaching and provides critical services that municipalities – plagued by their own budget shortfalls and socio-economic challenges – would be hard pressed to replace and likely could not afford.

Our students and faculty invest thousands of hours annually performing community service at local schools and non-profit organizations, working with churches, inner-city schools, local government, after-care programs, hospitals and supporting dozens of other worthwhile ventures. Directly and indirectly, we contribute to urban reinvention and civic pride, and we attract coveted knowledge-industry workers and suburban spenders.

And Connecticut’s private colleges and universities account for more than 170,000 jobs created in our state. In fact, together we represent the third-largest full-time employer in Connecticut, with approximately 21,500 full-time-equivalent employees. And more than 200,000 private college and university alum choose to remain in Connecticut to live and work.

Yet there is another vital piece to this economic picture that must not be overlooked:  We generate 45 percent of the total degrees awarded in Connecticut, but only receive one percent of the public funding for higher education. Ironically, despite this significant funding difference, our private colleges and universities are more efficient and produce more graduates at a far lower cost to Connecticut taxpayers than do public institutions.

However one paints this picture, it would be remiss to not appreciate the overall value private colleges and universities provide to our state. A large percentage of the young adults being educated in Connecticut’s private institutions are residents.

At Sacred Heart University (SHU), for example, our undergraduate student body composition is approximately 30 percent Connecticut residents, and almost all of our graduate students reside locally. When you add up all the costs and weigh the benefits, the value we provide is crucial to our state’s future. In fact, it has been estimated that if our 15 private colleges and universities did not exist, the same degrees we award annually would cost taxpayers an additional $739 million.

My goal is certainly not to undervalue the importance of public institutions of higher education. Both private and public colleges and universities are invaluable assets to our State, offering residents and visiting students a rich educational experience and vital developmental opportunities. Together we play a critical role in helping students achieve a rewarding, affordable education and experiences that will benefit them for the rest of their lives, help sustain our local and state economies and support the communities we share. But as financial push comes to shove, it is important to remind both legislators and taxpayers that Connecticut’s colleges and universities also help meet the needs of our state’s employers, create thousands of jobs, and serve a comprehensive, vital role in our communities and in the region.

John J. Petillo is President of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

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