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Updated: July 24, 2023 Editorial

Editorial: Higher ed is a strategically important industry in Central Mass.

Even though the entire industry totals just 15 colleges and universities through Central Massachusetts, higher education remains a strategically important industry and plays a critical role in the region’s economy.

While higher ed might have a lower regional economic output than real estate, manufacturing and the healthcare sector, its role extends far beyond its dollar-amount impact, even though that figure is still significant.

According to a March report from the Association of Independent Colleges & Universities in Massachusetts, which includes the eight private colleges and universities in the region, the industry produces $3.8 billion in economic impact and supports 18,800 jobs. Add in the region’s seven public institutions, including Framingham, Fitchburg, and Worcester State universities, and the impact on the region’s economy may come closer to double the figure in the AICU Mass report.

While the dollars and cents generated by these institutions are impressive, schools like UMass Chan Medical School and Worcester Polytechnic Institute are actively incubating research and spurning entrepreneurs to found companies with specialties in life sciences and green technology, among many fields. The growth of these industries has been possible here in large part due to our institutes of higher education, where students and professors from across the globe fuel our local economy. Central Massachusetts business leaders need to support efforts to attract and retain these graduates by partnering with schools to help develop curriculum to produce graduates ready to work in these cutting-edge industries, while mentoring and investing in entrepreneurs who are creating and growing these exciting new companies.

As vital as its contributions may be, the higher education industry is suffering through a turbulent time, on multiple fronts. A slowdown in overall population growth nearly two decades ago has produced fewer students graduating from high school, and thus a constrained pipeline of college attendees. Becker College in Worcester was forced to close in 2021, and schools, especially those with thin endowments, are looking to expand by attracting older, non-traditional students – many of them employees who want additional training and education. Additional challenges include dealing with the end of affirmative action as an admissions policy. In order to keep their student bodies full of people with all sorts of backgrounds, colleges will need to understand the issues impacting these populations and reinvent some of their systems for recruiting and retaining a diverse group of students.

Higher education has often been referred to as the ivory tower, inferring an aloof and out-of-touch air, but these days that’s simply not the reality. We need our higher ed institutions to maintain our competitive advantage, and they need deeper partnerships with the business community. Working together, we can continue to grow a robust and competitive economy.

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