Forum: Educated workforce is greatest community asset

Mystic - A highly skilled and educated workforce ensures that a community is resilient, innovative and competitive in a global economy, according to a panel of college leaders Friday at a forum at the Hilton Mystic.

"We all view higher education as the great equalizer," said Leo I. Higdon Jr., president of Connecticut College.

"The stakes have risen in the last 10 years or so," he said. "The world of work is changing. The world is more complex. There is more uncertainty."

Higdon was one of four higher education leaders who spoke during the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut event on education in the global economy.

Higdon said the college is vigorously preparing its students to develop strong analytical abilities, to become effective communicators and to work in internships that help them develop strong skill sets.

Michael Alfultis, director of the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus in Groton, said areas that need particular attention are science, technology, engineering and math.

But, he said, the value of a liberal arts education should not be underestimated. "It's more important than ever. These students are flexible and can move between job sectors."

Alfultis said colleges need to think about reaching out to underrepresented populations and students who are the first in their families to attend college.

"We need to encourage these populations and let them know that higher education is an attainable goal," he said. "If we don't reach out to them, we are going to miss out on an untapped talent pool."

Mary Ellen Jukoski, president of Mitchell College, and Grace S. Jones, president of Three Rivers Community College, also were part of the panel.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, also spoke briefly. He said the role of education and the economy should not be a partisan issue.

"Jobs and the economy are issues one, two and three," Courtney said. "Even during the (presidential) debate, we saw some consensus between education and the economy."

He said partnerships between schools and companies should be embraced and encouraged in order to create a globally competitive workforce.

Following the discussion, Alice Fitzpatrick, president of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, asked the panel what could the community do to make a college education attainable, affordable and not a tough financial burden to "put on a 17-year-old from the get-go."

Jukoski said Mitchell College works with New London High School to offer financial aid workshops to help students find more affordable options.

"Parents are asking if a college education is worth it and if their child is going to be able to get a job," Jukoski said.

She said she is seeing many students attend community colleges first and then transfer into a four-year institution to save money.

"Students and parents are worried with taking on so much debt," she said.

Alfultis, of UConn, said the community also needs to look to elected officials to see where they stand on education funding.

He said the federal Pell Grant program, which provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate students, is under attack and some leaders are proposing raising the interest rate on student loans.

"We as a community need to get together and protect these things," Alfultis said.

i.larraneta@theday.com

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