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. 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 nearly 5 percent in 2008 and more than 7 percent in 2009, reaching 18 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 almost 8 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 21 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 education 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.
Ben Wildavsky is senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation, guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and senior fellow at Education Sector.