By Julie E. Wollman

The Philadelphia area is distinguished by its rich concentration of higher education institutions. With more than 100 colleges and universities throughout the 11-county metropolitan area, we have the vast resources, broad expertise, and innovative thinking to tackle the most vexing problems facing the region.

Among the nation's 25 largest metropolitan statistical areas, the greater Philadelphia region ranks highest in awarding professional credentials such as nursing, law, and medical degrees, and ranks second in the nation in the number of bachelor's degrees awarded. According to Select Greater Philadelphia, these institutions also contribute nearly $15 billion to the gross regional product, and they are growing. Over the next five years, they plan to spend approximately $2.93 billion on capital projects, generating a total annual increase in regional employment of 7,153 jobs, along with $447.7 million in total labor income. Our colleges and universities have a tremendous impact.

Yet our region still includes some of the nation's most impoverished cities, lowest-performing public schools, and well-documented health disparities. This must change.

Through its higher education institutions, our region has the capacity to address problems such as poverty, food insecurity, environmental distress, and education and health inequities, but we must collectively embrace our responsibility to solve these problems.

Several institutions in the Philadelphia region have been recognized nationally by the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for their outstanding civic engagement efforts, including Widener University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr Colleges. The programs and initiatives for which they have been recognized have made a significant difference in communities such as Chester, West Philadelphia, and Norristown.

But these are pockets of progress. We must assess whether the impact our colleges and universities have on regional issues is in proper proportion to their potential for collective impact based on the extent of their resources and time invested in work in the community.

It is time to ask what we are trying to accomplish through our civic engagement efforts and what the outcomes are. It is time to ask, "What for?"

No doubt our students, faculty, and staff feel good about their work in the community, and this work allows them to apply what they are researching and learning to real-world problems. No doubt their work impacts individuals and changes lives. For example, in Widener's nationally recognized Physical Therapy Clinic, our students are restoring strength and independence for injured people without insurance coverage; the individual impact is profound.

Now we must take this work beyond individual impact by framing it within a focus on solving complex, systemic problems - sometimes called "wicked problems" because of their complexity - like health-care access.

Imagine our colleges and universities working not just to ready graduates for the workforce (which they do) or to prepare students to become better citizens (which they do) but also working intentionally to address major societal issues.

To achieve this outcome, we must help students understand that their research and civic engagement activities fit into a larger context than the discrete project and individuals they work with. If we are to solve our "wicked problems," we must equip students to think of their work in broader terms, to develop a sense of efficacy in combating our most vexing problems. And we must develop structures to frame their work in this way.

Of course, even with their wealth of expertise and resources, our colleges and universities cannot solve these societal problems alone. We need to work in harmony with businesses, medical institutions, and nongovernmental organizations, and with the support of government officials at the local, state, and national levels, to achieve widespread, lasting solutions.

Our higher education institutions are the Philadelphia region's greatest asset and a source of tremendous pride. We have the opportunity to establish collaborative models for metropolitan regions, in the United States and globally, to address our most challenging systemic issues. We owe it to our region, to our students, and to future generations to reframe our civic engagement work.

I challenge our Philadelphia region higher education leaders to participate in getting this done, and I challenge our policymakers and business leaders to turn to higher education as a partner in solving our vexing societal problems.

Julie E. Wollman is the president of Widener University in Chester.