When people think of Charleston, the first thing that often comes to mind is our history, which is so beautifully preserved in the buildings and neighborhoods around us. Our region is top of mind when it comes to tourist destinations and places to retire.

More recently, with the arrival of Boeing and the growth of the technology sector, Charleston is viewed globally as a hot market for commerce.

One thing our region is not known for is being a hub for higher education.

In fact, Charleston is a college town. While higher education may not be the central focus of community life here, the way it is in, say, Charlottesville, Va., Athens, Ga., or Chapel Hill, N.C., it is still a vital part of what defines Charleston.

It is hard to imagine our region without the contributions of our respective institutions. The College of Charleston has made essential contributions to Charleston's cultural and arts activities, and it is fair to say that there would be no Spoleto Festival without the welcoming and continuing embrace of the College.

Graduates of The Citadel have distinguished themselves in the military, and in public service, such as Mayor Joe Riley, who championed Charleston's renaissance.

Charleston Southern alumni are leaders of many of our local businesses.

The Medical University provides specialized health care that is not available elsewhere in South Carolina and trains many of the health care providers who serve our region and beyond.

Trident Technical College is helping to produce the skilled workforce needed by many of our technology-intensive employers.

As a recent report by the Charleston Regional Development Alliance demonstrates, these higher education institutions are vital to our region's economic development efforts, with a collective impact estimated to exceed $4 billion per year. Together, these institutions directly employ well more than 16,000 faculty, staff and medical professionals, making higher education a leading source of jobs. Our institutions are constantly recruiting new talent into our community — from bright young students to nationally recognized scholars and scientists, and these individuals drive our creativity and innovation.

We are reversing the historic “brain drain” that marked our region for so many years. In fact, The Wall Street Journal noted in 2011 that the Charleston region was the No. 1 “brain gainer” in the U.S., due to our leading growth in adults with college degrees during the past 10 years.

In times past, ambitious and enterprising Charlestonians more often than not had to leave the area for more promising opportunities. Today, the reverse is true — we are a net talent importer, and those who come here are attracting others.

How is it possible that the benefits of higher education to our region are so easily and often overlooked? For one thing, we have been around a long time — three of our institutions are nearing or beyond the two century mark. In spite of many developments on our campuses, people are accustomed to thinking of the colleges and universities as they have known them for many years. Similarly, the fact that we are separate institutions fostering diverse interests and capabilities also dilutes the perceived, collective impact of higher education. In aggregate, we have more than 50,000 faculty, staff, and students at all of our institutions. Together we are as large as many of the leading universities in the country.

As we look to the future, higher education will become even more significant to the success of our region. As Charleston and South Carolina compete on a global basis, higher education will be a magnet to attract and retain innovators, entrepreneurs, artists, and investors, among others. Ideas born in our classrooms and laboratories will reach the marketplace through new partnerships among our institutions and the private sector.

We will continue to make contributions to the quality of life by providing lifelong learning, cultural venues and events, and expertise in maintaining our precious coastal environment.

In pursuing our separate missions, we also anticipate greater opportunities to work together, to build synergies and efficiencies, and leverage our collective strengths for the greater good.

We encourage all the people of our region to engage with us, to help us serve you better, and to embrace Charleston as a college town.

Dr. Raymond S. Greenberg is president of the Medical University of South Carolina; Dr. P. George Benson is president of the College of Charleston; Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr. is president of The Citadel; Dr. Mary Thornley is president of Trident Technical College; Dr. Jairy C. Hunter Jr. is president of Charleston Southern University.