Published: March 1, 2009 By

bruce bensonPerhaps the most overworked phrase in the recent election campaign was the “bridge to nowhere,” a reference to a proposed project in Alaska that became a metaphor for everything from crazy ideas to poor decisions. It’s getting new life as politicians and pundits debate the federal economic stimulus package, with proposed infrastructure projects as part of the discussions.

These projects are important to Colorado and the nation, both to strengthen our systems and to create jobs. To a limited extent, higher education is moving up the priority list in stimulus discussions, but it should be more prominent. While bridges certainly matter, they stop stimulating the economy the moment they are completed.

Higher education, on the other hand, is an investment that provides a critical, ongoing return. It allows us to produce the human infrastructure that will drive us out of recession and ensure our long-term success. Colleges and universities, particularly research universities, offer critical components of an economic recovery and future prosperity.

The University of Colorado is a perfect example. Our alumni contribute to communities around Colorado and across the country in myriad ways, from education, health care and business to the arts, elected office and nonprofit work. CU research drives new ideas in areas critical to our state and nation, including biomedicine, health care, renewable energy and space sciences. Universities are engines of economic activity and innovation. We create good jobs and educated workers to fill them.

Given our significant role in economic development and long-term prosperity, it’s puzzling to see the value that Colorado and other states place on higher education. Across the country, public colleges and universities are bearing the brunt of the poor economy. Just as we were beginning to recover from Colorado’s last recession, we will have to take more reductions. CU is bracing for tens of millions of dollars in cuts over the next 18 months.

Yet we must control our fate. We must convince the public and lawmakers of the value of higher education. We must show them that universities are economic engines that also produce the skilled work force we need. Each of us has a role in that endeavor. We have to spread the message with our friends and neighbors, with legislators and business leaders, in our communities and across the state.

And the message is that higher education is the bridge to economic stability and quality of life.