The Business Of Higher Education Official Urges Proper Tuning And Maintenance Of The Region’s Main Economic Engine

“Eds and Meds.” That’s the phrase Evan Dobelle uses when he refers to education and medicine. Those are the fields that represent the future of the economy in New England, he said recently — but only if the region takes the steps necessary to properly foster them.

At a recent gathering of area education and economic development leaders at Springfield Technical Community College, Dobelle, president and CEO of the New England Board of Higher Education, used a barrage of statistics and some direct language to describe how New England’s 270 colleges are universities are the region’s main economic engine — but one that is not being properly fueled.

“This (Bush) administration is standing in front of the college door as much as George Wallace did at the University of Alabama,” said Dobelle, referring to actions ranging from cutbacks in federal grants and loans to restrictions that limit access by foreign students. “And that is weakening this industry.”

Dobelle, who has served as president of four colleges and universities, and was also mayor of Pittsfield, said that New England is at serious risk of losing the competitive advantage it has spent more than 200 years compiling in the field of higher education.

Indeed, other regions of the U.S. and other parts of the world, including Australia, Europe, and even New Zealand, are making great strides in education, and are or soon will be attracting large numbers of the students who once came to New England to earn an a degree.

This phenomenon will eventually have a profound impact on the region, he said, noting that, where students go, urban renewal, research, jobs, and economic development will follow.

To stem this tide, said Dobelle, government at the local, state, and federal levels must do something it hasn’t done historically — make real investments in the education system — from early childhood education to public colleges.

“Everyone says they want to be the ‘education governor’ or the ‘education mayor,’ or the ‘education president,’” he explained. “But they don’t really support education.”

Course of Action

Dobelle said that in his role with the board of higher education, his specific job description is to act as champion for New England’s colleges and universities and promote them not merely as seats of higher learning, but as an industry and also as the region’s brand.

This aspect of higher education can’t, or shouldn’t, be ignored, but the reality is that it’s often forgotten or taken for granted, something that shouldn’t happen as global competition mounts.

The statistics do a fair job of telling the story, he said, noting that New England’s colleges employ more than 250,000 people, and only 30,000 of them are educators.

Together, the schools spend $20 billion annually in operating costs, and their 850,000 students, or “permanent tourists,” as he calls them, bring a steady stream of of parents and visitors to area cities and towns and generate billions of dollars in economic activity.

The region’s 45,000 foreign students alone injected $1.25 billion into the New England economy last year, he said. Beyond those important numbers, he said, colleges and universities often provide a community with its character — and much of its economic vitality.

Examples abound, he explained, listing Boston, which owes much of its livelihood — and recent urban renewal — to its 28 colleges and universities, as the most visible manifestation.

But Providence can also attribute much of its recent transformation to expansion efforts and community-based initiatives involving its private schools, Brown, Providence College, Roger Williams, and others, and its public institutions, primarily the University of Rhode Island.

“They changed the city,” Dobelle said of those schools, noting that Worcester, Springfield, Hartford, and other communities have benefited greatly from the engine fueled by education and, increasingly, medicine.

To keep that engine running, especially at a time of heightened competition in this country and abroad, elected officials at all levels must view education as an investment, not an expense, said Dobelle, who brings a wide range of experience, with both private and public colleges and in different regions of the country, to his current position, which he assumed last January.

He became president of Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Mass. in 1987, and served in that capacity until 1990, when he took the reigns at City College of San Francisco. In 1995, he came back to New England to lead Trinity College in Hartford. Doing his seven years there, he initiated the Learning Corridor project that revitalized a Hartford neighborhood and earned national recognition.

In 2001, Dobelle became president of the University of Hawaii.

During each of those stops, Dobelle said he witnessed the powerful economic influence of higher education, a force that may diminish if elected leaders take (or don’t take) steps that effectively limit access to a college education or inhibit colleges as they seek to expand and add programs.

Such was the case on Oct. 6, he told the gathering at STCC, when the House Education and Labor Committee voted to cut $15 billion from federal financial aid programs. Coupled with modest increases in Pell grant amounts — at a time when tuition is rising nationally at a rate of 9{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} — such steps will prohibit many individuals from attaining a college education.

“Who’s kidding who?” he asked. “If you’re a single mom, if you’re a minority, if you’re a working class kid, if you come from a low-income family, you’re not going to college, because you can’t afford the extra $1,000 in tuition.”

Such a situation creates at least two Americas, and perhaps three, he said, referring to groups, or classes, that can or cannot attend college. Those groups include affluent whites, minorities, and poor whites.

Beyond this segmenting of the population, however, limiting access to college also weakens the education industry and, in turn, limits its impact on communities. While the funding of grants and scholarships is a concern, said Dobelle, so too is the overall financial commitment state, federal, and local governments make to education — or the lack thereof.

At the federal level, he noted, Congress has been able to find more than $100 billion to fund the war in Iraq and another $30 billion to rebuild New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “But it can’t find another $6 billion to fund ‘No Child Left Behind.’

At the state level, many self-proclaimed ‘Education Governors’ have failed to live up to that billing come budget time, said Dobelle, imploring those in the audience to hold such leaders accountable when they fail to invest in education.

“These states have the money, and it’s our money,” he said. “They should give it back to mayors to lower the tax rate or spend it on education, but they can’t tell me that they don’t have the money — they do.”

Failure to make the needed investments in higher education has always come with a price, said Dobelle, noting quickly that the cost could go up dramatically if other countries and other regions of this nation successfully adopt the model New England built.

In China for example, which has 17 of the world’s 37 major population centers, or ‘mega cities,’ as they are called, the government has committed to funding college education for 300 million people.

“So do you think China’s a threat?” he said with more than a note of sarcasm in his voice. “In nine years, they’re going to have 300 million Chinese nationals 32 years of age and under with college degrees and who speak English.”

Many of those whom the Chinese will be educating cannot come to this country for a degree due to restraints on student visas that result from the Patriot Act, said Dobelle, adding that there are other forces that will keep the numbers of students coming to the U.S. down.

If that trend continues, he said, the next generation of Asian business leaders will forge relationships in Europe, Sydney, and Auckland, and not Boston, Providence, or Silicon Valley.

By the Book

Referring back to ‘eds and meds,’ Dobelle said they clearly represent the best hope for a region that is losing businesses and individuals to other, mostly warmer, climates.

“We’re getting old, and it’s cold,” he said of New England, adding that manufacturing has moved south, and the banking and insurance sectors are moving to Canada. “Eds and meds are our future.”

But that’s a cloudy future, because each time education funding is cut, tuitions are raised, or eligibility for student aid is further restricted, the pillar of the region’s economy — its brand — is undermined.