I was talking with my father one day about the prospects of my committing to live in Greensboro and he remarked that one of city's features that makes it economically viable over the long term is the plethora of colleges and universities. Higher education establishments here should keep state and private monies flowing in, my dad said, and attract businesses because of the city's age- and skill-diverse workforce.
Of course, I regularly hear local and state leaders talk about how vital our colleges and universities are for preparing young people to "compete in a global economy." But some in the educational system worry that the glue that holds globalization together is an achilles heel for higher education: cheap oil. Like other institutions in America, the higher ed system's business plans, physical infrastructure and study areas rely largely on fossil fuels.
I touched on this concern in a peak oil project I completed for the News & Record in June. Gerald Cecil, a physics professor at UNC Chapel Hill, one of the top liberal arts universities in the state, said the school's long term success depends on how it prepares for a decline in oil supplies. He is currently working on an freshman introductory course on the subject.
His concerns are more than reasonable. Higher energy and tuition costs are already creating stress for families and the colleges themselves and driving changes in the educational system, such as an increase in online learning; the late Peter Drucker, a renown management consultant who coined the term "knowledge worker," predicted in 1997 the demise of residential colleges within 30 years (yet public universities in North Carolina, including UNCG, are in the midst of a building boom). The Chronicle of Higher Education featured an article this month encouraging colleges to prepare for peak oil.
Expensive and isolated schools may be at a disadvantage. I attended Campbell University in Buies Creek (a town that had one traffic light when I was there) and students drove 30 minutes or more to Fayetteville and Raleigh for entertainment. Will students do that at $7 a gallon gasoline? Will families spend $20,000 plus a year on tuition and fees in an era of lower job availability?
Public and technical schools such as N.C. A&T (as well as community colleges) may be at an advantage because of their low tuitions and program areas. UNCG, Elon and Guilford College have sustainability programs, but my understanding is that staff are motivated more for environmental reasons than peak oil. My question is, how long will it take before high oil prices contribute to a gradual decline in enrollments rather than an increase? Should colleges continue to rely on government and private loans to fill their seats? Time will tell.
In the meantime, alternative educational systems are trying to fill in the peak oil educational gaps: I've seen plans for bioregional colleges and "communiversities." Given all of the educational resources in Guilford County, it would make sense for leaders here to retool and adapt early rather than start from scratch when it is too late.