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Selling New England

IT HAS BEEN a tough winter for New England. Besides the relentless snow, a blizzard of mergers and acquisitions has sent a chill through some venerable companies and challenged our regional self-confidence. At the same time, the Census Bureau has confirmed something many economists and others have been telling us for years: Educated young people are leaving New England for good jobs and sunny skies.

So why am I optimistic about the region's future? The answer lies in the 270 colleges and universities located throughout the six New England states. These institutions and their tradition of educational excellence represent New England's ''brand." ''College in New England" connotes excellence. Emerging colleges all over the world evoke the ''New England" brand to add prestige to their institutions. But strangely enough, we New Englanders frequently overlook the unparalleled higher education resource in our midst.

How do we capitalize on our brand? For starters, we need to tell the powerful story of how New England colleges and universities fuel our economy. They employ over 250,000 people and spend $20 billion annually in operating costs. Their 850,000 students -- in a sense, permanent tourists -- bring a steady stream of parents and visitors to our 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.

These economic impacts are only part of the story. New England's world-class healthcare sector owes its strength to the nexus of medical schools, teaching hospitals, and research universities that call the region home. Our ''creative economy" is anchored by the arts and cultural offerings of our campuses. Our small cities and rural villages are energized by the museums, theaters, bookstores, and restaurants that cluster around campuses. Our working adults have access to a wealth of continuing education opportunities ranging from community college to university programs.

Finally, there's the well-documented spinoff effect of research and development: The nation's highest concentration of research dollars and graduate students has made New England an ideal location for start-up tech and biotech companies.

Blind optimism would be a mistake. As a major article in The Economist magazine noted, ''Just as globalization has let capital and labor search the world for the best deal, the same is happening with students, academics, and donations."

Is New England ready to compete in this global market for excellence? Other states such as Florida and California have made concerted efforts to develop multiple first-tier universities. Overseas, Australia and New Zealand have become educational powerhouses. The Economist article reports that Australian universities saw a 50 percent increase in both Chinese and Indian applicants in 2003. US colleges saw a 45 percent drop in applicants from China and a 30 percent drop in those from India.

If those trends hold, the next generation of Asian business leaders will forge relationships in Sydney and Auckland, not in Boston or Providence.

Already, a recent survey commissioned by the Northeast Utilities-sponsored ''Discover New England for Business" initiative suggests that many business people and business relocation pros see the six-state region not as the education Mecca that it is, but rather as a quaint, albeit cold, corner of America.

When Discover New England for Business asked corporate heads from across the nation and abroad an open-ended question about what reasons they see to do business in New England, fully 27 percent volunteered that they wouldn't do business in New England. At all. As the survey's authors lament: ''New England's image is one of a costly, highly regulated historic theme park (and by the way, bring a parka!)"

We need to do what every good business does to clarify its image: We need to develop a compelling brand strategy.

But we also need to take concrete steps to solidify the strength of our higher education enterprise. We must stop treating higher education as an expense and start thinking of it as an investment. Every time we cut higher education funding as a percentage of state budgets or raise tuitions or further restrict eligibility for student aid, we undermine the pillar of our economic future.

We need to invest real resources in our education system, beginning with early childhood education programs for all New Englanders and running right up through higher education endeavors from adult literacy programs to high-end scientific research. And we need to remember, our region's new growth industry is higher education.

Evan S. Dobelle is president and CEO of the New England Board of Higher Education.

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