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College Affordability, Energy and Sustainability

October 9, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
President Morton Schapiro moderates a panel of experts on the economics of higher education. Video produced by Matt Paolelli
Mark Ratner, professor of chemistry, makes a point during a symposium focused on energy and sustainability moderated by NBC's Kelly O'Donnell. Video produced by Matt Paolelli

Two of today's most pressing issues -- the affordability of higher education and energy and sustainability -- were explored in symposia honoring the Oct. 9 inauguration of Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro.

A well-known researcher in higher education economics, President Schapiro is an author or editor of numerous books and more than 100 articles on the topic, including "Keeping College Affordable" and "College Access: Opportunity or Privilege?" He also made a name for himself in energy and sustainability. In 2007, as president of Williams College, he outlined an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction strategy for the college that Inside Higher Education dubbed "the gold standard of green standards."

In a wide-ranging discussion in the symposium on the economics of higher education, a subject that President Schapiro called "dear to his heart," he asked questions to what he happily described as "the dream team" of higher education economists. They discussed college affordability and access, the challenges of financing higher education in a recession and the need to increase attendance of minority and middle and low-income students into the nation's top universities and colleges.

"While the elites are offering more financial aid, we still haven't moved the needle on how many low-income students are attending them," said Vassar College President Catharine Bond Hill.

  • In addition to Hill, affordability of higher education symposium panelists were William G. Bowen, president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and a frequent research collaborator with President Schapiro; and Burton A. Weisbrod, John Evans Professor of Economics and Institute for Policy Research faculty fellow at Northwestern. President Schapiro moderated, gladly taking on, as he said, the job of Charlie Rose.

In the symposium on energy and sustainability -- on the day that President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for his stance on climate change -- a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist, two academics and an entrepreneur sat down to talk about the critical and hotly debated issues surrounding energy and sustainability. Money, behavior, leadership, policies, consumption, technology and population growth were among the themes that emerged.

"Unless we, the original Americans, redefine in more sustainable terms what it means to live an American lifestyle, and then invent the technologies so more other people can live this lifestyle, we're going to burn up, choke up, heat up and smoke up the planet so much faster than even Al Gore predicts," said Thomas L. Friedman, author of "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" and New York Times columnist.

  • In addition to Friedman, energy and sustainability panelists were Kimberly A. Gray, Northwestern professor of civil and environmental engineering and of chemical and biological engineering; Mark P. Mills, founding partner of Digital Power Capital; and Mark A. Ratner, Lawrence B. Dumas Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry and co-director of the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern. Kelly O'Donnell, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News, was the moderator.

More on economics of higher education symposium:

Bowen suggested that the college application process itself plays a role in keeping qualified lower-income students out of the stronger academic institutions. An important finding in one study is that students from modest circumstances that could go to a strong place are more likely to go there if a peer from a similar background tells them they can go there.

Another suggests that lower income students are more successful when they attend college or university with students they know. Why not, asked Bowen, "take 25 students from a single high school instead of one from 25 schools."

President Schapiro got a chuckle from the panel when he mentioned that only hours before the symposium he had read in The New York Times that even Harvard was taking hits from the current recession economy. Gone, the paper reported, were hot breakfast in most dorms and cookies at faculty meetings.

Asked what higher education would look like in the next 20 years elicited a range of panelist responses. Panelists predicted that the federal government would be more involved in higher education, that white students would represent a minority of college student enrollment and that tenure would be on the decline. Among their hopes for the future is the possibility that more first-generation high school graduates, more lower-income and more high school graduates of color will attend elite institutions of higher learning.

A final prediction, made by President Schapiro's long-time friend and co-author McPherson, brought forth laughter and applause from the audience. "In 20 years the president of Northwestern University will be Morty Schapiro," he said.

More on energy and sustainability symposium:

The panelists frequently mentioned the scale of both the energy/sustainability problem and the scale of any solution.

"There are 6.5 billion people on Earth, of whom 300 million live in this country. This problem, the energy/sustainability problem, is a world problem," said Ratner. "It's a world problem more than H1N1 is a world problem.

He pointed to three ways to solve this problem that will scale to the mass of people on Earth and the mass of unborn people. "One of them is solar, one is nuclear, and one is conservation," he said. "It is a different kind of problem than we've ever had before. ...We have to get the world together."

The panelists agreed that creativity, ideas and innovation are not lacking in the search for solutions.

"What makes me optimistic is everywhere I go now I meet energy innovators and entrepreneurs," said Friedman. "The country is actually exploding with innovation from the ground up."

"Rock stars get room keys, I get business cards," he said. "The bad news is we still do not have the government policies in place to maximize that exploding innovation at the speed, scope and scale we need. This is a scale problem. ...The only thing that gives you scale is, I believe, the market. You need a fixed, long-term, durable price on carbon."

What is missing in the conversation on energy at large, Mills answered with one word: "Money."

"There is an explosion of young talent, a staggering amount of innovation," he said. "What's missing other than policy, which is essential, is venture capital. ...These young people need risk capital. A lot of the innovators are there, but they can't find capital."

The conversation turned to the stories of two very different countries: China and Denmark. Representing two ends of the spectrum, China has adopted green technology and on a large scale while Denmark is tiny but focused in its approach to sustainability, O'Donnell observed of the panelists' remarks.

"Denmark is probably a better analysis for us than China because it's not from the top down, it's a great democracy," said Ratner. "When I lived there [in the 1970s] they were exporting ham, butter and Danish plates. Now they export windmills, wind technology. Gasoline is 9 bucks a gallon, and it's the most robust economy in the Western world. So they've learned something."

Participants also addressed technology's role in creating the problems being discussed and its use in solving the problems. Gray argued that maybe technology played a role in getting the world in the perilous position it is now in, saying it's time now to think about technology within the context of some ecological constraints. Friedman countered with the belief that we can apply technology and make things better. Ratner later added that a very specific technology - nanotechnology - is going to be transformative in addressing energy issues. He is optimistic that solar energy will take hold in the future.

Behavior, too, was a critical part of the conversation. "Our behaviors, with respect to energy and resource use, have to change," concluded Gray. "It's not just the climate that's in peril -- other ecological indicators say we need to change."

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