MORE THAN ALMOST any other state in the country, our economy, quality of life, and international reputation are inextricably connected to our colleges and universities.

Massachusetts is the world’s healthcare leader because of the university-affiliated medical centers that pioneered anesthesia, infant formula, cardiac surgery and organ transplants. From the beginnings of computer technology to the mapping of DNA,  the researchers and students at our colleges and universities have driven innovation and invention to change the world. And over the last 20 years we have become home to the most concentrated center of biotech innovation in the world.

Now, an exhaustive independent study of the economic impact of the 59 private colleges and universities that comprise the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts has quantified just how much these non-profit institutions contribute to our state as a whole, and in the regions surrounding Boston, Worcester, and Springfield.

Economic researchers at Econsult Solutions, Inc. (ESI) analyzed impact in terms of economic output, jobs created, and tax revenues generated from member institutions’ annual operations and large-scale capital projects, as well as from ancillary spending from students and visitors, and the induced impacts of alumni earnings. The results?

ESI determined these 59 institutions directly employ or support nearly 321,000 jobs, have a statewide annual economic impact of $71.1 billion – including $35 billion in operating expenditures, $4.4 billion in capital construction spending, $3.6 billion in visitor spending and $28 billion in the alumni wages of the doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, artists, small business owners, and business leaders these schools produce and choose to stay here.

This spending, these jobs, these alumni aren’t just concentrated in Boston and Cambridge. Private higher education is the cornerstone of the economies centered in central and eastern Massachusetts. While ESI determined that private higher education has the most impact in eastern Massachusetts – with 42 schools and an annual $64 billion impact on the economy – the Worcester region sees an annual $3.8 billion impact and western Massachusetts an annual $3.3 billion. And while faithfully pursuing their charitable, non-profit missions, the taxes generated by these institutions in payroll, income, and sales equals $2.4 billion.

Certainly, the jobs we create, the taxes we pay, the revenue we generate, and the other economic benefits are vitally important. But our impact goes far beyond ESI’s data. Our private colleges and universities contribute significantly to local economies and the public good. In some parts of the state, higher education institutions are an essential part of a vibrant ecosystem; in other regions, these institutions can be the leading source of employment of all skill levels, revenue, and other sources of economic impact.

Our colleges and universities award hundreds of millions of dollars in scholarships annually to launch the dreams of students from across the state. They grow and donate tons of food to populations in need; provide essential free legal services; offer no-cost dental and eye screenings; promote music and art in our public schools; and turn empty city parking lots into athletic and recreational fields used by the entire community. And they partner with local government in providing essential services such as policing and safety, road maintenance and public realm improvements. Our partnerships and work in our communities are valuable activations of our nonprofit missions.

What these economic impact numbers are saying to policy makers is crucial – especially now, at a time when we are facing dire predictions about the challenges of a shrinking workforce, demographic shifts, and arguments over the cost and value of higher education. The sector cannot be taken for granted. Our federal and state leaders need to see that actions and policies do no harm and remain laser focused on helping all Massachusetts students in need, regardless of where they attend college in the Commonwealth. Our students, communities, and the state’s economy depend on it.

Marisa J. Kelly is the president of Suffolk University and the board chair of the Association of Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts. Rob McCarron is the president and CEO of AICU Mass.