As Connecticut continues to engage in a yearly struggle to balance its budget, some pundits question the long-term benefits of continuing to invest in our private colleges and universities.

Typically the debate drifts to costs, property values, traffic congestion, post-graduate job prospects and cultures of drinking and partying. It’s easy in this chaos of misdirection to not see the books for the library, metaphorically speaking.

In reality, the overall value a college or university provides to surrounding communities and its host state are innumerable, however overlooked or obfuscated by negative publicity, focus on athletic achievements or misunderstood missions.

When you live in or near a university community, there’s an undeniable force, a gush of creative, social and intellectual energy. It’s a combination of hope, dreams, community service and future possibilities. It leaves in its wake opportunity, economic stability and renewal, countless resources, personal and community growth and a cohesive mesh of motivated people and ideas.

Let’s table the obvious career- and quality-of-life-related benefits enhanced by a college education and examine the economic impact to our state. Connecticut’s 16 non-profit independent colleges and universities alone contribute in excess of $15.2 billion annually, according to the recently released biennial report commissioned by The Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges (CCIC).

That represents $1.8 billion in direct institutional spending for faculty and staff wages and benefits, as well as $1.2 billion for the purchase of goods and services, and $8.4 billion in capital improvements. These institutions employ approximately 18,000 full-time workers and directly support an additional 140,000 jobs in the state. Overall, the private college and university system is credited with creating or retaining close to 160,000 additional jobs, resulting from the economic activity generated by this sector.

Think full-service or takeout restaurants and food vendors, landlords, laundromats, gas stations and garages, clothing, sundries and personal-care products, book sellers, furniture and material goods for rooms, apartments and houses, moving companies, big box, grocery and convenience stores, computer and electronics establishments, health-care providers, entertainment purveyors and recreational resources, and you start to appreciate the bigger economic picture.

What’s more, the Connecticut college and university system makes a further impact through more than 200,000 alumni, staff and retired faculty who live in the area, earning in excess of $14 billion in wages and generating more than $2 billion in state and local taxes. Ours is a highly educated state, with the most productive workforce in the country and the second-highest gross state product per capita.

Let me quote two other important economic benchmarks before moving on to other benefits. First, these institutions are magnets for students and visitors who spend at least $640 million annually in our state. And together, Connecticut’s colleges and universities invest, on average, more than $8.4 billion in new and renovated residential and non-residential buildings and facilities, as well as equipment, art, books and learning-related materials.

Private colleges can also provide solutions to the state’s struggles to replace an aging work force. For example, Sacred Heart has developed a partnership with Starwood Hotels and Resorts and the Stamford Mayor’s Youth Employment Program to address a local need for digital media and IT talent and to mitigate rising youth unemployment. Sacred Heart’s role has included providing digital marketing training to high school students participating in the Mayor’s Youth Employment Program.

Professors from SHU’s Jack Welch College of Business have joined with employees of Starwood to teach the students new skills before they spend two weeks shadowing Starwood employees while developing their own digital media campaigns. The program was recently recognized by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions.

As our governor and the Connecticut legislature continue to struggle with budgetary challenges and shortfalls, it’s critical that financial aid for students interested in attending our private and public institutions of higher learning is maintained and even increased. Funding for financial assistance, scholarships and special programs is critical for our state’s long-term recovery and growth, and continued re-investment is an economic necessity.

Ensuring the viability of tomorrow’s workforce and generating the social service, education, manufacturing, engineering, business and health-care providers we need in our state is a shared responsibility. Together we must create a culture of inclusion, collaboration and opportunity for graduates and employers to remain in Connecticut and to entice others to move here.

Recognizing and supporting the far-reaching value and benefits provided by our colleges and universities – which again is in excess of $15.2 billion annually –­ is a critical benchmark in achieving these goals.

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