Panelists discuss economics of higher education

Emilia Barrosse

A relaxed group of economists and academics sat in front of a crowd of more than 200 people in the Henry Crown Sports Pavilion on Friday and discussed the role and effects of the economy on higher education. Kicking off the inaugural celebration, the 90-minute symposium was moderated by University President Morton O. Schapiro.

“It’s important to make a distinction between what is going on in economics departments and what is going on in economics,” said William G. Bowen, president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a symposium panelist. “There are more and more economists working on applied problems – such as higher education – who are not in economics departments, and this is an interesting proliferation.”

Along with Bowen, panelists included Catharine Bond Hill , president and professor of economics at Vassar College; Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation; and Burton Weisbrod, NU’s John Evans Professor of economics and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.

“I have assembled a dream team,” Schapiro said at the outset of the symposium. “An absolute dream team.”

Topics ranged from the factors contributing to the panel’s involvement in higher education to what they picture the field will be like in 20 years.

“Now the notion is that higher education is not merely something that is nice to have, but that it is in fact a valuable asset, which pays off handsomely in the labor market.” Weisbrod said. “It takes for granted that this higher education system is functioning, and it explores the consequences of that.”

The panel also addressed the current precarious financial state of colleges and universities.

“If there is a single lesson for the rich private (universities)… it is to pay more attention to liquidity than some of them did, because they found themselves in the position of having to sell off valuable assets at bargain based prices and that’s not something you want to do,” Weisbrod said.

However, other panelists disagreed with Weisbrod on the issue of liquidity.McPherson, of the Spencer Foundation, said he thought the liquidity argument was “vastly overdrawn.”

Instead, he proposed universities take other precautions when a fluctuating stock market and shaky economic times could cause severe economic downturns.

“What the public and the private colleges have in common is that they need to be prepared for a rainy day, ” McPherson said. “When the stock market tanks, as it has over the last year or so, the rich schools with big endowments are hit hard. The moral of the story is that schools have to think about having a rainy day fund… it’s unrealistic to not be prepared for this.”Audience members included professors, students and parents of current students.”(Schapiro) was an extraordinary president at Williams… He changed the institution in extraordinary ways,” said Nancy Roseman , who taught alongside Schapiro at Williams College and attended the symposium. Roseman said she had high hopes for Schapiro’s NU career.”He left a tremendous legacy at Williams,” she said. “And he’ll bring incredible energy, honesty, personal integrity and enormous intelligence to Northwestern.”

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