President's Cornerpublished Jul 16, 2009 9:16am
How will the current financial turmoil affect geoscience education? This is certainly a question on all of our minds as we watch the majority of states grapple with budget deficits, see massive losses in endowments and find our own net worth shrinking in frozen real estate markets. While such developments are troubling, they are occurring in a political environment that is favorable to science education and one where the Federal government is injecting massive amounts of capital into the system. What trends should we as geoscience educators monitor and how should we position ourselves during this period to strengthen our profession? In this President's Corner I summarize what I view as important factors related to budgets and enrollment. I encourage those of you with more expertise in these areas to voice your views using the editorial option of this newsletter.
Pay attention to budget discussions both on- and off-campus. Clearly we are entering a period of unprecedented fiscal austerity that will affect us all. Most economic experts agree this recession is deeper and will last longer than any in the post-war era. Current state reports show deficits in 48 states that total approximately 24% of state budgets; this despite Federal stimulus aid. The projections for 2011 are even worse. Most private endowments suffered similar losses. Looming budget cuts will likely have both immediate and long-term impacts. While many academics pride themselves on being altruistic, we must remain cognizant that wages (both real and indirect) affect job satisfaction. If the education community follows industry, we could face wage freezes, cuts and even retrenchment. Likewise, departments will likely be required to additionally reduce operating expenses; those reductions could impact field, lab and classroom experiences. It is incumbent on us, as educators and mentors, to remain positive about our profession during these difficult financial times. One way to do this is to build new research collaborations and seek additional support through increased funding available as part of the stimulus package. You could also monitor state budget discussions, consider becoming politically involved and find other ways to streamline operations to preserve those educational opportunities you most value.
Watch enrollment trends over the next 12-36 months. Demographic data are positive as they suggest enrollments should increase over the next two years, peaking in 2011. The same data suggest these students will be more diverse than ever before. Data from the last two significant recessions also show enrollment increased during those difficult economic times, even when graduation rates were flat. Therefore, we can expect to see more non-traditional students in our classrooms due to widespread unemployment and the growth of federally funded retraining and veterans programs. This provides an excellent opportunity for the geosciences to become a more inclusive profession. While enrollment trends appear positive for the near term, the affects of unemployment coupled with dropping home values and tight credit are unknown. Also, about the time economic experts project a rebound in the economy, enrollments are projected to fall as the number of graduating high-school students drops. As such, geoscience educators should redouble their efforts to strengthen their departments to both take advantage of and prepare for changes to enrollment trends. An excellent source of information for building a strong geoscience department can be found at http://serc.carleton.edu/departments/index.html.
Clearly we, as a community, are in the midst of challenging times. The NAGT community needs to face these challenges together, provide support and encouragement where needed and share ideas for success when possible. Please contact me if you have ideas to share (firstname.lastname@example.org).