New York State's Two Possible Futures

Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President, Wells College

As a college president, I spend a great deal of time traveling in New York State. I cannot help but notice abandoned factories and neighborhoods that once must have been beautiful but are now in need of revitalization. I also see exciting new businesses springing up to replace those that have declined and cities that have transformed urban wasteland into vibrant communities again. All in all, it seems that New York today offers a glimpse of two possible futures. It is up to us to determine which path to take.Education is a thriving enterprise in our state. All the New York communities I visit are actively involved in the process of education. I see public and independent schools, healthy and bursting with energy. Every region contains nationally respected institutions of higher education ranging from two-year schools, to liberal arts colleges, to research universities. I see more and more adults utilizing a variety of educational opportunities.The high value we New Yorkers place on education is part of this state's culture. This has been a key to our past success, and I believe it is the key to our future success. New York can build a positive future only if it supports a strong education sector.Education must serve the people of this state by teaching the skills and knowledge needed for the new, information-driven, technologically oriented economy. To accomplish this, institutions of learning at all levels must build partnerships with businesses and communities, and the various sectors within the education community must reach out and form more partnerships among themselves. If we work together, we have in our power the ability to shape a bright future for our economy and the ability to create a high quality of life for those who live and work in our communities.In our society today, a learning society whose progress is driven by information, we must help our students connect knowledge learned in the classroom to the world. We must be sure our graduates go forth with a sense of social responsibility, the values, and the knowledge they need for happiness in the bold, new century. That will require educators to think differently about their organizations and move closer to the marketplace.A look at the U.S. Department of Labor's current list of the fastest growing occupations between now and 2006 tells us that in the years ahead, we must meet a tremendous need for computer database and support specialists, computer engineers, and computer systems analysts. The field of health care, transformed by technology, is requiring us to produce many professionals to work in this rapidly growing area.Nearly all the fast-growing occupations require some level of higher education. Our two-year and four-year institutions in New York offer training in all these fields. Of course, the requirements of the marketplace will change. New professions will emerge requiring new skills. Today we cannot even name all of the rich career opportunities that will be available to our students - if they receive quality education.I am convinced the private higher education sector has a crucial place in our future. Our 108 private colleges and universities in this state enroll 390,000 students each year, including 280,000 New Yorkers. Independent colleges and universities in New York provide jobs for 137,000 people. Our payroll totals $4 billion annually. Each year we generate $30 billion in economic activity. We award nearly 55% of the baccalaureate degrees and 70% of the graduate degrees earned in this state. It's no surprise that the state ranks fourth nationally for the percent of its citizens who have advanced degrees.Our private colleges provide quality education and produce groundbreaking research. They enrich our lives through the arts. Many of them offer programs and services for businesses in such important areas as biotechnology, software engineering, international trade, and marketing.I am pleased to be an active member of New York's Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities. My colleagues and I know these institutions are necessary in shaping a prosperous future for New York. I am gratified to see the growing number of creative partnerships that are being established between the business community and higher education. Faculty, staff, and students at area colleges are eager to connect in new ways with the communities around them. These institutions can help you gain a competitive advantage in many aspects of business. Private institutions in every region of the state offer exciting resources.Private colleges and universities suffer greatly from the myth that the rich attend independent colleges while the poor attend the state system. In truth, the independent sector enrolls and graduates a huge percentage of New Yorkers from lower- and middle-income families. Over half come from families making less than $60,000 annually. Nearly a third come from families making less than $20,000 annually. The state and private sectors work together, complementing each other, in order to educate the talented students found here.The Commission on New York State Student Financial Aid can secure the future of higher education in the state by restoring the balance of support between the independent and state-operated colleges. With adequate and balanced state support, both sectors can flourish. A belief in education is, indeed, a part of the state's culture, and the people of New York support education. We must use every opportunity available to make our voices heard and encourage leaders and legislators to adequately fund education.Diversity among institutions is what makes our schools the greatest in the world. We will prosper in an environment of inter-connection and collaboration, not in an environment of competition and isolation.