Here is today’s pop quiz. Which of Connecticut’s higher education sectors:

Are you surprised to learn that the answer is the robust nonprofit independent college sector?

‘The knowledge economy,” Bill Gates once observed, is “a phenomenon that has transformed the business of business.”  The driving force in that transformation is the caliber, vision and ingenuity of higher education – which places Connecticut in an enviable position, squarely on the lead edge of the accelerating pace of change.

Critical to realizing Connecticut’s economic potential is the remarkable array of independent colleges throughout our state that attract, retain and graduate students well-prepared to contribute in immediate and meaningful ways – and in ways we can barely imagine.

Connecticut has begun to devote considerable resources to businesses and industries with expanding economic promise – sectors that include advanced manufacturing, engineering, bioscience and allied health. Fortunately, the state has a partner in this push for progress that is already on the ground, advancing initiatives that are pivotal to sustained success.

The pace of innovation is remarkable at each of the 16 member institutions of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, as is their striking impact on Connecticut.  Together, these anchor institutions annually educate more than 64,000 students, and confer the largest total number of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral and first-professional degrees earned in Connecticut.

The impact of these institutions – individually and collectively – has at times been undervalued or overlooked. But state Economic Development Commissioner Catherine Smith rightly pointed out recently that the “skills and knowledge of the workforce are the most important elements of any state’s economic infrastructure,” adding that our “rich array of colleges and universities gives Connecticut an economic advantage.”

In learning to think critically and communicate effectively, students attending Connecticut’s nonprofit independent colleges develop precisely the skills that employers place at the top of the list when considering candidates for jobs, or evaluating whether to expand operations in Connecticut. Robert Aumann, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, was recently asked, “How do you bring about innovation?” His answer: “Education, education, education.”

Alliances between government, business and independent institutions are numerous, and cut across disciplines and industries, including aerospace, digital media, bioscience, health sciences, computer science and engineering. Between research, internships and coursework, the level of preparation – for our students and our state – is priceless. Our demonstrated ability to adapt rapidly to changing workforce needs, coupled with an unwavering determination to afford concrete opportunities to a diverse student population, mirrors industry’s pressing and long-range objectives.

Important contributions are also made when independent colleges bring new life to former manufacturing facilities or corporate headquarters vacated by industry, or establish satellite campuses that extend the accessibility of academic offerings into additional communities, like Yale’s notable reuse of the Bayer lab property into a hub for innovation and exploration, Quinnipiac’s development of a health care-focused campus at the former Anthem site, University of Saint Joseph’s expanding School of Pharmacy in downtown Hartford and University of New Haven’s development of the former Hubbell property into a campus devoted to all aspects of the business curriculum.

In a review of current trends, BBC News concluded that “Knowledge is power – economic power – and there’s a scramble for that power taking place around the globe.” Connecticut can surely excel in the jostling under way to gain a firm footing for the future. Some might even argue that the direction our global economy is spinning plays to our strengths as a state.

The degree to which that proves to be true is largely dependent on the choices we make, the priorities we set and the potential we realize from the assets – institutional and individual – that are right here, right now.

Judith B. Greiman is president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, which is a co-sponsor of the forum on “The Knowledge Economy.” Pamela Trotman Reid is president of the University of Saint Joseph and the CCIC board chair.

Editor’s note: The CT Mirror is sponsoring a discussion of The Knowledge Economy tonight, from 7 to 9, in the auditorium at the Quinnipiac University Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine. The event is free and open to the public. More information is available here.

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