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Your View by six college presidents: Private colleges have a huge impact on Lehigh Valley

November 7, 2019, @ 11:47 AM


Current debates about higher education focus on college as an individual good, which some can afford and others cannot. In this context, the education provided by private colleges and universities is framed as a luxury that benefits only the students who attend such schools.

Not true.

While we are proud of the return on investment for our graduates — as well as our spending on financial aid to make attending as affordable as possible — our impact goes well beyond the students we serve.

Independent, nonprofit colleges and universities are a vital part of the Lehigh Valley economy. We are home to six vibrant and diverse private institutions, including a women’s college, a Catholic university, a research-intensive university, and liberal arts colleges.

Add Reading’s Alvernia University and Albright College to the mix, and collectively we generate more than $2.1 billion in economic impact, according to a study commissioned by the Association of Independent Colleges & Universities of Pennsylvania.

Collectively, independent colleges and universities in Pennsylvania educate over 290,000 students and produce an annual economic impact of $24 billion, according to the same study.

Here in this region, our eight schools support more than 16,000 jobs and generate over $95 million in state and local tax revenue, that study also asserts. Several of us are the largest taxpayers and largest employers in our hometowns.

In addition to spending money with local businesses, our students contribute their time and energy to many of our community organizations including Second Harvest Food Bank, the Sixth Street Shelter, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, and the Third Street Alliance for Women and Children. Each of our campuses is very involved with the Community Schools programs in each of our city school districts.

Graduates of our institutions teach our children in every local school district, care for us in every local health care facility, and lead our local businesses and governments. Each of our campuses works with the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation to support the growth of entrepreneurship and new businesses.

Our faculty and staff work directly with community organizations to tackle issues impacting local quality of life such as water quality, air quality, radon induced illnesses, crime recidivism, and access to housing and health care. We contribute to the culture of our region directly through programming on our campuses and indirectly through our support of arts and culture organizations.

We also serve an extremely diverse population: 53% of all four-year degree-seeking students attending private colleges and universities in Pennsylvania are students of color and 43% of all students at our schools are eligible for Pell Grants, a need-based federal student aid program. Finally, our students are more likely to complete their degree in four years than are students in public or for-profit institutions.

What’s a private college education worth? A whole lot more to many more people than you might think.

Elizabeth M. Meade is president of Cedar Crest College. Alison R. Byerly is president of Lafayette College. Bryon L. Grigsby is president of Moravian College. The Rev. James J. Greenfield is president of DeSales University. John D. Simon is president of Lehigh University. Kathleen E. Harring is interim president of Muhlenberg College.

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