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Independent colleges aid economy

Pennsylvania has a rich history of higher education, including some of the best independent nonprofit colleges and universities in the nation.

Apart from their mission as centers of learning — preparing students for their careers and for the world — these institutions are economic generators and community anchors.

A new report produced by a nationally recognized economic consulting firm uses substantiated data and best practice methodologies to measure these impacts on the statewide economy and on local communities –in both qualitative and quantitative terms.

The report found the 90-plus independent nonprofit schools (known as AICUP — the Associ­ation of Independent Colleges and Universities in Pa.) create or sustain almost 200,000 jobs in Pennsylvania every year. In addition, they generate an annual economic impact of $24 billion for the state’s economy — a stunning 140-to-1 return on taxpayer investment.

Their analysis proves that investing in these independent nonprofit schools does not just prepare the workforce of tomorrow, it enhances Pennsylvania’s economy today.

In north and southcentral Pa. alone, six AICUP schools add almost $1.2 billion a year in value to the economy, sustaining and supporting almost 9,000 jobs.

Each year, AICUP students spend over $3.4 billion in Pennsylvania, almost all of it in their local communities.

Additionally, the 90-plus independent, nonprofit AICUP colleges and universities in Pennsylvania — including Bucknell, Juniata, Lycoming, Mount Aloysius, Saint Francis and Susquehanna — generate $1.1 billion in state and local taxes, a 6-to-1 return on the commonwealth’s investment in them through the PHEAA student grant program.

$24 billion is a big number — the state budget totaled $34 billion this year and Facebook made $22 billion last year — but the impact of AICUP schools on Pennsylvania goes well beyond that dollar figure.

The report notes that AICUP schools are drivers of community partnerships from one end of the state to the other, donating more than 5 million hours in volunteer service and almost $60 million in annual contributions to local charities. These schools are literally devoted to the stories and successes of their students and communities across the state.

Some examples:

— Small business development centers that provide no-cost, confidential consulting to entrepreneurs in dozens of Pennsylvania counties.

— Arts events that become community traditions over decades.

— The leader in a major urban area in the treatment of childhood asthma, providing screenings for thousands of underserved children.

— Women with children programs that empower economically disadvantaged single mothers to complete their college degrees.

— The only autism center serving a 13-county area.

— The largest student-run Special Olympics event in the world, hosting over 5,000 volunteers, 1,000 athletes, and 400 coaches.

AICUP schools also create new knowledge breakthroughs in research and technology, winning over $1.2 billion in federal research dollars last year.

They inspire and educate the next generation of leaders, prepare graduates for the jobs of tomorrow, and train and educate today’s front-line workers.

These contributions are harder to quantify in dollar amounts, but the returns on investments in public and private higher education are well documented — career opportunities, better understanding of the world around us and economic security for graduates and their families.

Together, AICUP schools deliver world-class educations to over 291,000 students annually, and expect to graduate 73,000 of them in May 2020. Most AICUP students graduate on time with a five-year average student debt lower than their publicly funded counterparts, and 67 percent earn degrees in career-directed fields, such as nursing, IT and accounting. These AICUP graduates are an inclusive bunch:

— 43 percent of all the low-income students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in Pa.

— 47 percent of all STEM graduates in Pa.

— 48 percent of the “mature” students re-skilling and up-skilling in Pa.

— 53 percent of all minority students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in Pa.

In a booming economy like today’s, with low unemployment rates and employers competing for qualified workers, some will argue that a college degree is not necessary to earn a family-sustaining wage.

But private and public investments in independent nonprofit higher education continue to generate big returns — in good economies and bad, and in communities from one corner of the state to the other.

It’s quite a resume — $24 billion, 200,000 jobs, almost 100 community anchors. Now that’s a return on investment.

Tom Foley is president of AICUP. He previously served as Mount Aloysius College president and as state Secretary of Labor and Industry.