"You (in West Virginia) have 150 years of a lot of great vision, persistence and hard work that can be used to drive you into the future, but you're going to need a really strong information backbone," Westphal said.
"Knowledge is the key to the future; information is the wealth-driver," she said.
Dr. Brian Hemphill, president at West Virginia State University, said to meet that goal, local higher education systems have to break out of the traditional academy style learning system that was crafted in the 19th century.
"The bottom line: We must adapt," Hemphill said.
That, he said, will require going beyond teaching just the basics, but giving students a hands-on learning environment that prepares them for the future needs of the workforce.
"Higher education has to be in tuned with today's learners and today's industries," he said. "Those that do will be the prosperous institutions and deliver West Virginia into the future."
Steve Hedrick, CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research and Innovation Center, said studies have shown the Marcellus shale natural gas industry alone will likely grow to support 29,000 natural gas and manufacturing jobs by 2020 and 50,000 jobs by 2035.
He said to meet that growth, West Virginia will need to ensure it's graduating enough students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields in order to properly support the industries.
"I believe it all comes down to education and innovation," Hedrick said. "In my opinion we need a science-literate citizenry in order to make well-informed decisions for our society."
While education holds the greatest potential in unlocking this growth, Westphal said the growing national and state-level debts pose the greatest threat to the country's overall future.
She said the problem isn't as bad right now, as most mature, developed countries around the globe currently face the same debt crises.
However, she said the U.S. would lose its advantage as the world economic leader once the economies of developing countries begin to emerge.
"What's happening is there's a lot of countries that aren't burdened like we're burdened," Westphal said. "They haven't gone through the last 50 years of the spending and the race for whatever it was...they are pretty much starting clean sheet in a lot of cases."
She said the United States has to begin to rein in its spending and tax policies and place them on a self-sustaining path.
"We cannot spend like we have been spending the way we have been spending in the past," Westphal said. "We're going to have to give up some things to gain some things, and the debate right now is that we don't want to give up anything."
Contact writer Jared Hunt at busin...@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.