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By Joel S. Bloom We are at the onset of a major political transition in the United States, and policies adopted by President-elect Trump as well as Congress could have significant implications for higher education. While opinions diverge on a number...

NJIT president: Trump, Congress must recognize higher ed and economic growth are linked | Opinion

By Joel S. Bloom We are at the onset of a major political transition in the United States, and policies adopted by President-elect Trump as well as Congress could have significant implications for higher education. While opinions diverge on a number...

NJIT president: Trump, Congress must recognize higher ed and economic growth are linked | Opinion

By Joel S. Bloom

We are at the onset of a major political transition in the United States, and policies adopted by President-elect Trump as well as Congress could have significant implications for higher education.

While opinions diverge on a number of fronts and correctly point to both concerns and opportunities, there should be universal consensus regarding the critical role colleges and universities play in economic development and preparing students to participate in a democratic society. That role needs to be respected and nurtured, or the results could be disastrous.

Like it or not, the reality is we increasingly are becoming an automation economy and computing is continuously changing the way we learn, create, communicate, and do business.

Across all industry sectors, companies are seeking efficiencies or innovations and, in most cases, both as the key strategies for maximizing profits. This has threatened many in our workforce whose positions or skill sets run the risk of becoming obsolete.

Some might assume this threat is exclusive to the manual laborer or employee lacking advanced education. That, however, would be a dangerous and faulty assumption. According to The Economist:

"What determines vulnerability to automation is not so much whether the work concerned is manual or white-collar but whether or not it is routine."

That is precisely the reason why job growth is occurring most rapidly in sectors requiring what The Economist refers to as "non-routine cognitive thinking." This skill set demands the capability to problem-solve, to adapt, to improvise, and to collaborate -- the things that high education is designed to foster within students.

Not surprisingly, job growth in the technology cluster is booming, so much so that we are not able to meet the demand for talent across technology-driven industries.

In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported the U.S. has 1.3 million vacant jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields annually with only 600,000 new college graduates within those disciplines. STEM has become pervasive in virtually every aspect of our lives. It is entwined throughout the industries that drive our national and global economies, including our health care systems, military and defense systems, manufacturing, transportation, and every other business sector you can imagine. That has created an abundance of opportunities for people with the necessary skills, and we are not talking exclusively about college graduates.

There is great need for employees in technology installation and repair, advanced manufacturing, and a number of tech-related trades. In addition to jobs being available, average annual wages for the technology cluster rose 17.2 percent from 2009 to 2014, and our own data at New Jersey Institute of Technology shows that, by the time our students reach graduation, they have an average of nearly three job offers in hand and starting salaries exceeding the national average by almost 20 percent.

That positive trend is expected to continue for many years as STEM occupations are projected to experience 9.2 percent employment growth by 2024.

The effect of higher education on economic growth also extends beyond its important role of educating the workforce of tomorrow. Colleges and universities must develop partnerships that strengthen the ability of our pre-K- through-12 education system to deliver effective STEM instruction, and we must provide technology training for non-degree students.

Universities also are centers of research and innovation. At NJIT alone, we annually conduct nearly $140 million in research activity and have an economic impact of $1.74 billion on the state. Our New Jersey Innovation Institute applies NJIT's intellectual and technological resources to challenges identified by private- and public-sector partners, creating a structure for efficiently moving scientific/technical knowledge into the marketplace. This creates a platform for resource partnership. We also operate a technology-focused Enterprise Development Center with more than 95 companies in residence.

These are just a few examples of NJIT serving as an economic engine. There are many more, and NJIT is not alone in fulfilling this need.

As we discuss and debate the educational policies put forth by our president-elect and Congress in the months ahead, we must remember that higher education and the economy are inextricably linked. Anything that weakens higher education, whether that be reduced funding for research and student aid or immigration policies that make it prohibitive or unappealing for the world's brightest students and professors to come to the U.S. or any number of other potential concerns, will cause great damage to our national economy.

Conversely, policies that strengthen our ability to provide both the type of education, and the access to it,  that will prepare students for this rapidly changing economy while enabling us to continuously drive innovation, will strengthen our nation and improve quality of life for all the world's citizens. It is unlikely that there will be simple solutions to any of the complex problems we face, so we must consider thoroughly and debate vigorously the potential benefits and detriments of all policy proposals that affect higher education. America's colleges and universities do not operate in a vacuum, and we cannot afford to make the mistake of assuming they do.

Joel S. Bloom is president of the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

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