As another school year comes to a close and we consider the many factors that will influence our region’s ability to compete in the future, the role that a strong education system plays in economic development is more critical than ever. Education is essential to building a workforce with the proper skills and knowledge to attract and to retain the businesses that create jobs for local families.
In Southwestern Illinois, we are fortunate to have five institutions for higher learning that are directly involved in building a workforce that enables economic growth in our region. Collectively, these academic institutions are equipping 40,000 students with the skills that will be in demand in the years to come. Throughout this process, the institutions themselves have become a vital and growing economic engine for our region. The past decade has seen investments in a number of noteworthy capital improvement projects that are changing the landscape of every campus while adding to the learning opportunities available throughout our region.
Some students are preparing for the high-tech jobs that will be available in our evolving manufacturing sector. In many cases, these same students will be able to access those jobs with just a couple of years of specialized training. In the meantime, other students and young professionals are pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees, with access to more choices than ever in a range of growing industries as our universities continue to expand their offerings and provide their instruction in some of the newest facilities in the nation.
Meeting students’ needs requires that the previously mentioned institutions have the resources necessary to support their programs and facilities, which is why it is so vital that the state of Illinois takes a balanced approach as cuts to education are considered. A look at some of the current and recent changes at these colleges and universities helps to underscore that continued investment in higher education is an investment in our future.
At Lewis and Clark, plans are under way for a series of capital improvements designed to enhance the college’s offerings in advanced technology, workforce training, sustainability and more — including the development of a new state-of-the-art workforce training center. Lindenwood University Belleville has grown from an extension center to a full-service campus offering 35 degree programs to more than 2,300 students. McKendree University recently transitioned from a “college” to a “university” and has seen enrollment grow to more than 3,100 students and has expanded its academic course offerings to 48 undergraduate majors and graduate degree programs. Southwestern Illinois College has created one of the finest advanced manufacturing training facilities at any U.S. college at its Sam Wolf Granite City Campus; and its new Veterans and Career Services Center recently debuted, making SWIC the first Illinois community college with this type of combined, co-located veterans and career services. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville now serves approximately 14,000 students, many of whom get to study in the exceptional new science and engineering facilities, while its Center for STEM research, education, and outreach continues to build a community of researchers and educators innovating ways to engage students and the public in STEM.
All of these investments and enhancements have contributed to positive enrollment trends and are improving the quality of our workforce today and for the years to come. While we recognize that creating a vibrant future will also be dependent upon the restoration of fiscal responsibility in Illinois, which will entail painful cuts, let’s make sure that higher education continues to receive appropriate levels of funding to keep building the workforce needed for our region to continue to grow and to thrive.
The fact that our fine institutions of higher education routinely receive various honors and awards recognizing them among the best in the country in a variety of categories is clear evidence that they are doing their part and doing it exceptionally well. From their focus on educational excellence to their role as economic engines, there’s no question that each institution of higher learning is a positive force within our region; and their shared commitment to workforce development is fueling the growth of Southwestern Illinois.
Mike Riley is president of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, a member-based, economic development organization that has worked for more than 30 years to unite the region for economic growth through its coalition of leaders in business, industry, labor, education and government.