Higher Ed

Universities have been forced to innovate – and may emerge stronger than ever.

See Kate Sheppard on how climate deniers won the recession. 

The predicament facing higher education during the economic downturn is in some ways reminiscent of a scene from a 1994 episode of The Simpsons. After Homer Simpson is banned from his favorite bar, Moe's Tavern, he slouches on his couch despondent. In an effort to cheer him up, his daughter Lisa offers a lesson in Chinese philosophy: "Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for 'crisis' as they do for 'opportunity'?" she asks him. Homer brightens up instantly, responding, "Yes! Crisitunity!"

Homer's Chinese wasn't quite right, but the lesson is a good one: Opportunities come out of crisis. Confirming the conventional wisdom that higher education expands when jobs are scarce, U.S. college enrollment grew faster than usual during the recession, particularly at community colleges. Total undergraduate numbers jumped 4.9 percent in 2008 and 7.3 percent in 2009, reaching 18.1 million in 2010. At the same time, however, the recession and its aftermath have led to significant financial strain for many American colleges and universities. Endowment returns shrank dramatically and are still not recovering quickly enough to cover most institutions' costs, while financially beleaguered states have dramatically reduced the subsidies that make possible continued enrollment growth, as well as many university activities. State support for higher education fell 7.6 percent in fiscal 2012, the biggest drop in half a century.

But therein lies the opportunity. Already, the savviest institutions are making a virtue of necessity as American higher education figures out how to do more with less. They're seeking new, improved, and less expensive solutions to everything from increasing access to improving how efficiently students learn, and they may emerge from the recession in a stronger position to adapt to the economic and technological challenges they had previously been slow to recognize.

Some early-adopting U.S. universities have used the crisis to go global, on a scale never previously imagined. MOOCs -- massive open online courses -- have spread quickly in the past year. These ventures, from the Harvard-MIT collaboration edX to West Coast-based rivals Coursera and Udacity, feature free classes taught by professors from a range of top universities and open to all comers. Udacity's inaugural class on artificial intelligence, taught by a star Stanford University professor and Google's similarly renowned director of research, attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries. Students pay nothing for the classes, but are charged a modest fee if they wish to take proctored exams at one of 4,500 testing centers around the world.

At this scale, of course, personal attention is minimal, grading is automated, and conventional accreditation is likely to be slow (though Udacity just announced that Colorado State University's Global Campus will award transfer credits for one of its computer science classes). But MOOCs have taken the spotlight at a time when spiraling tuition and state cutbacks mean that the huge national and global demand for postsecondary education must inevitably be satisfied in innovative, unconventional ways. In the United States, undergraduate enrollment is projected to rise 14 percent, to 20.6 million, by 2021. And worldwide growth will be much, much larger. Already, global postsecondary enrollment jumped from 100 million to 150 million from 2000 to 2009; it is projected to reach 250 million students by 2025.

Little wonder, then, that the appetite for such classes outside the United States is enormous. In many cash-strapped countries, demand for high-quality courses far outstrips supply. The number of students from Lithuania who signed up for Udacity's first class exceeded the entire student body of Stanford. Groups of Udacity students have organized "meet-ups" in nearly 450 cities around the world; among the 10 most popular sites are Coimbatore, India; Barcelona; Beijing; and Singapore. For all the frequently expressed worries about the U.S. education system, there is clearly demand for American-style higher ed around the world.

It is probably no accident that budget woes have coincided with a period of tremendous ferment in higher education, both in the United States and globally. There is the inexorable rise of technology, of course, but also a broader push to rethink how to advance quality, access, and accountability on campus in an age of limited resources. Rather than threatening colleges and universities, the hard times may, in the logic of Lisa Simpson, make them better.

See J.M. Berger on how extremists won the recession. 

Robert Spencer/Getty Images


Climate Deniers

When the economy is suffering, no one wants to hear about an impending environmental catastrophe.

See Daniel Altman on how Nouriel Roubini won the recession. 

Was it really just six years ago when a documentary about climate change -- Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth -- could draw $24 million at the U.S. box office? That was back when the words "housing bubble" were just entering the average American's lexicon, back before the liquidation of Lehman Brothers, back when we would voluntarily fork over cash to sit in a dark room while a former vice president told us that we're all boiling ourselves to death.

There was, for a brief period then, a sort of optimism about what the United States could accomplish on climate change. President George W. Bush, already on his way out the door in April 2008, affirmed that human activity was causing global warming and vowed that the "ingenuity and enterprise of the American people" would help us overcome it. Barack Obama won the White House later that year with the promise that the next four years would be remembered as the time "when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal" (a pledge that became a punch line for his Republican challenger this time around).

Since then, the United States has failed to do anything significant about climate change. The issue has disappeared from the national radar, even as the scientific evidence has piled up. Political leaders no longer care about it, outside the occasional obligatory mention, in large part because voters don't either. Internationally, the situation isn't much better. Despite all the hype about the 2009 United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen, there's still no binding international accord that sets emission limits for both the United States and China. And this past June, a conference held on the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit -- billed as a "once-in-a-generation chance" to set out a vision for a sustainable future -- was similarly disappointing, concluding with a flimsy political statement.

The lack of enthusiasm for all things environmental is pretty easy to explain: It's the recession, stupid. Yet climate change skeptics -- a camp that includes both the hired guns of the fossil-fuel industry and some true unbelievers -- like to claim they are winning the debate. (Remember "Climategate," the ginned-up scandal in which emails from scientists were stolen, edited, and spread around the Internet to make it seem like climate change is a giant hoax? Or the big 2010 "Snowmageddon" storm in Washington, D.C., when the family of the Senate's leading climate denier, Oklahoma's James Inhofe, built an igloo and labeled it "Al Gore's New Home"?)

There's no lack of science on the subject; the risks associated with pumping too much carbon into our atmosphere have only gotten clearer in the past six years. But the climate naysayers have been the beneficiaries of the dismal economy. Americans' interest in cutting emissions has sagged almost in lockstep with the rising unemployment rate. Who has time to worry about melting glaciers when the mortgage payment is late or the supervisor is shuffling pink slips? The deniers are pushing on an open door.

Gallup has asked Americans how much they "personally worry about global warming" nearly every year since 1989. In 2000, a high of 72 percent told Gallup they "personally worry about global warming." The figure stood at 66 percent by 2008 -- and then quickly plummeted again to 51 percent in 2011, before rising slightly to 55 percent this year. The figures parallel, with a slight lag, what U.S. GDP has done -- slumping around the 2001 dot-com bust, recovering, and then falling again after the 2008 financial crash.

It's not that people no longer think the climate is changing. It's that they just don't have the capacity to worry about it all that much. The percentage of Americans who acknowledge humans' impact on the climate has actually held pretty steady in the 50s over the same period.

In a paper published in May in the journal Global Environmental Change, University of Connecticut political scientist Lyle Scruggs laid out the case that the economy -- not Climategate, not Fox News -- explains the decline in concern over the issue. More than 30 years of survey data show that people's fears about the environment track more closely with the ups and downs of the economy than with any other trend.

Other countries have also cooled to warming as a top policy concern. Japan, Canada, and Russia have declined to extend the Kyoto Protocol. The eurocrisis has even pushed the issue to the back burner of the European Union, long the most dedicated champion of significant climate action. Scruggs found a similar decline in Europeans' concern about climate amid economic hardship. Meanwhile, Australia, which approved a carbon tax in 2011, abandoned a price floor for carbon in August amid concerns it would put the country at a competitive disadvantage with Europe.

That hasn't stopped deniers from dancing in the end zone. In May, the energy industry-funded Heartland Institute unveiled a billboard in Chicago featuring Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and the tag line, "I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?" The group promised more billboards featuring Fidel Castro, Osama bin Laden, and Charles Manson, but ended up pulling the Unabomber sign mere hours after it went up. Then, the website Climate Depot -- an all-purpose clearinghouse for denialists -- blasted a headline declaring that Gore's absence from this year's Democratic National Convention lineup "matches what has happened to issue of climate change itself." (Unfortunately, the short shrift climate change received at the convention did little to disprove the notion.)

So the deniers have benefited, if inadvertently, from the recession. They can stop fretting, for now, that the United States or other major governments might enact wide-ranging emissions caps. But ironically, the dismal economy, coupled with low natural gas prices, is also responsible for bringing U.S. carbon emissions down to a 20-year low this year, without any concerted policy effort to cut them. Scruggs predicts that Americans' concern for the environment "will likely rebound after labor market conditions improve, but not until then." Unfortunately, that should be right around the time emissions pick up again.

See Ben Wildavsky on how higher education won the recession.