If the 15 colleges and universities in Northeast Pennsylvania were a single institution, it would be the sixth largest university in the United States.

Nearly 55,000 students attend the schools, which employ more than 8,700 people and generate about $1.3 billion a year in economic activity, including a collective payroll of about $360 million.

Higher education is one of the few growth industries in Northeast Pennsylvania. Total employment and enrollment are higher now than before the Great Recession that began in late 2007.

Effective stewardship of those institutions is vitally important to the entire region.

Two long-serving college presidents who have played particularly important roles in the growth of higher education in the region, and its integration into the community and economy - Dr. Edward Boehm Jr. of Keystone College and Dr. Michael MacDowell of Misericordia University, Dallas - have announced their retirements at the close of this academic year.

Dr. Boehm, the dean of the region's college presidents, will leave Keystone after his 16th year; Dr. MacDowell will leave after his 15th year at Misericordia.

Both presidents led their institutions through periods of renewal and growth. Dr. Boehm helped stabilize his institution, adding majors and baccalaureate degrees. Dr. MacDowell led Misericordia's transition from a college to a more multi-faceted university.

Both were champions of making higher education an engine for social and economic progress in Northeast Pennsylvania. They were keenly aware that the low percentage of regional residents with at least bachelor's degrees contributed to the region's stubbornly high unemployment. Both were advocates of cooperation among the region's colleges to change that, and treasured the fact that their institutions continued their traditions of hosting the first college students from innumerable Northeast Pennsylvania families.

Their service has been not only to their institutions but to Northeast Pennsylvania. They will be missed even as Keystone and Misericordia continue to build on their legacies.