Peak electrical power: the US continues to de-industrialize

One fascinating sign of America’s changing technological and economic life appears in this Bloomberg News article.  The United States is making, and using, less electricity than we used to.

That’s a surprise, given the 20th century’s spectacular growth of industry and technology, but the decline is real:

American electricity generation 1949-2016; source USEIA

Justin Fox goes into fine detail, probing different theories, but readers might be asking at this point, “Why does this matter, unless I’m a utilities wonk?”

Several reasons.

First, it points to the continuing deindustrialization of the US, as we shift towards a service and knowledge-based economy.  Factories use a lot of electricity.  Fewer factories and you get this in just a few years:

electricity sales by sector_2001-2016

And seen through another measurement, we can see the decline starting around the 1980s, right when offshoring and financialization began to take off:

electricity per GDP_1949-2016

So this electrical transform shows how America’s economy is changing.  The effects of moving away from industry ripple across our society.

Second, this change shows the importance of new attitudes towards energy: conservation, cost control, and efficiency.  Some of this is about economics.  I think it’s no accident that the last chart above shows a decline starting after the great 1970s oil shock.  And it’s clear that the economy after 2008 took a serious hit, which we really haven’t recovered from – we’re still working through austerity and belt-tightening.  On another level this could indicate progress in environmental thinking, where power waste is less popular than it was before the first Earth Day.

Third, it points to how lame the American economy has been.  As the Bloomberg writer points out,

a grim new economic era dawned in 2000 or 2001 that has been characterized by slow growth, declining labor-force participation and general malaise — all of which tend to depress energy demand…

I would add to that productivity growth’s stalling out, plus the fierce decoupling of worker compensation from business profits. The American economy just isn’t demanding as much as it used to, or should.

Fourth, as a sign of the future, this could hint at what a truly post-industrial economy looks like.  That’s one where we are more focused on digitally-related activity and transportation, and not so much on making stuff.  It’s one where some form of environmental consciousness has spread through daily life.

What does this have to do with education?  As my readers know, changes in the American economy have powerful effects on every bit of schooling from pre-K through graduate programs.  The shift away from manufacturing and towards service and knowledge sectors has already changed curricula.  Economic malaise has squeezed state budgets, and, in part as a result, they contribute less to public colleges and universities.

On a more direct level, a number of campuses have taken steps to change their physical plants to use less power and/or to create their own.  We use digital technologies to collaborate and research, which shifts electrical expenditures away from travel and towards keeping computers humming.

Looking head, will schools become the grounds for new experiments in power, such as wireless transmission or alternative generation sources?

Do you think this decline will keep going, or will new electrical uses hit the grid?

Posted in research topics | 2 Comments

Two new free college plans and the future of higher education

Last week Bernie Sanders and allies introduced legislation to provide tuition-free public higher education for students in families making less than $125,000 per year.  At the same time New York’s governor announced the Excelsior Scholarship, setting up a similar plan for that state’s college students.  Other states have been exploring related plans.  What’s going on?

Let’s dig into the federal proposal and New York plan, then think about implications.

Both have strong ethical and moral components.  One of the federal law’s sponsors, Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington), describes the proposal in such terms:

Profiting from student loans is usury, and we just can’t continue to allow it…

You see, there’s nothing normal about graduating with massive student debt, where you live in fear of predatory debt collectors and wage garnishers even as you are starting to live your life.

There’s nothing normal about not being able to have a family or buy a house because you have spent years trying to pay off your loan and you just can’t take care of anything else.

Or from the Bernie Sanders site:

It is insane and counter-productive to the best interests of our country and our future, that hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and that millions of others leave school with a mountain of debt that burdens them for decades.

Both plans are focused on publicly funding tuition for public colleges and universities, including 2- and 4-year programs.  Private schools aren’t on the table, although apparently Cuomo tried and failed to regulate them in his bill.  Graduate programs aren’t considered.

Cuomo Sanders_Politico

Two politicians not usually this close together.

Since both support tuition, they leave open the problem of paying for fees (which can easily escalate, and have often done so) and especially living expenses.  As Sara Goldrick-Rab pointed out, the latter provide a serious obstacle to students, due to a mix of income stagnation and rising costs, plus adult learners’ extra costs.

The NY law offers an interesting exception, in that it allocates $8 million to pay for open education resources (OER).  That’s especially daring politically at a local level, given how many publishers (and lawyers) are based in New York.

Neither plan regulates higher education spending or quality.  One commentator observes,

these plans would do nothing to crack the whip on the schools to improve their quality, or reduce the time to graduate, which has stretched from 4 years to 6.2 years for an undergraduate degree over the past couple of decades.

This is true, and a popular view, but misunderstands higher education. One reason for people taking longer to graduate is that they can’t afford to pay for school, so they take time off to work.  A student enjoying full tuition at a public institution may still be unable to pay fees and other costs, or could face living issues (economic and otherwise) that knock them off the expected schedule.

Current student debt is largely unaffected, although the federal proposal could allow renegotiation of interest rates.  Predatory lending, difficulty in discharging, etc. aren’t in these laws.

The New York law in particular has a series of problems.   Continue reading

Posted in politics | Tagged , | 1 Comment

No, technology is not what’s wrong with American air travel

In reading the many reactions to this week’s United Airlines horror story, we should not be surprised to see some blaming technology.  Air travel is, obviously, a very technology-intensive enterprise, from aircraft to the complex support structure of airports, fuel, training, and so on.  As consumers, fliers increasingly experience air travel through digital layers, like using online booking and handheld devices for in-flight work and entertainment.

Technology is an easy fall guy for what’s wrong with American air travel.  Focusing on it lets us ignore other, far more powerful causes.  Technology is also a shiny target, making for fun headlines and clicks.  Foregrounding tech engages both technophobes and tech fiends, as I’ve documented for more than a decade on another blog.

airplane deicing

Farhad Manjoo’s New York Times column today offers a good example of this technology misdirection.  It’s worth reading carefully to tease out ways people misuse technology critique, and how we can instead better understand air travel.  

Manjoo’s thesis is that in many ways, “technology has only fueled the industry’s race to the bottom… [in] customer service”.   Travelers tend to  use technology – mostly web services like Kayak or Expedia, here – to select flights based only on price and timing, so airlines respond accordingly.    “Customer service — that is, how the airline treats you — isn’t often part of the transaction. As a result, airlines have little incentive to reform themselves.”  Therefore the web is to blame for bad service: “Airlines are …  content to feed you ever-worse service for lower prices, because that’s what the web wants.”

For a short column, “How Technology Has Failed to Improve Your Airline Experience” wanders from its thesis pretty frequently.  It wants to blame technology, but slides off to other targets:

What keeps deteriorating are comfort and quality of service for low-end passengers (i.e., most people). Legroom keeps shrinking. Airlines keep tacking on separate fees for amenities we used to consider part of the flight. And customers keep going along with it.

Notably, Manjoo doesn’t blame tech for these reasons, although he could.  For instance, one classic view of technology is that is narcotizes people, turning them into couch potatoes, fake news gobblers, or video-game-obsessed zombies.    He could have argued that today’s traveler is too tech-addled to protest bad service, but sidesteps that thought. 

airplane wheel over cityThe column also offers odd views of air travel reality, like this rosy sketch of the air travel business: “airlines are doing well; profits are up across the globe, despite your annoyance about flying.”  In fact said airlines have razor-thin margins and frequently go bankrupt or merge (hello, American Airlines; how is your digestion?).  Moreover, “profits are up across the globe” isn’t the point, since the article is just about air travel in the States.

To be fair, Manjoo mentions two other reasons for American air travel going wrong.  In his opening paragraph he notes “regulatory failures as well as consolidation, which the authorities have allowed to occur unabated for decades” (see here for a take from 2012).  Yes, those are powerful drivers.  Naturally, they don’t appear again in the piece, because they’re not technology-driven and aren’t shiny objects.  Manjoo also contradicts himself by sometimes seeing tech as not the cause of bad air travel, but just a worsening factor: “the airline industry’s business model… has been accelerated by tech.”  He even comes close to blaming neoliberalism: “What we are witnessing is the basest, ugliest form of tech-abetted, bottom-seeking capitalism”.  These exceptions and contradictions, if pursued, would have led to a very different, and much more useful, article. Continue reading

Posted in travel | 1 Comment

Still more campus cuts

April is the cruelest month, and some American colleges and universities are showing their agreement with that sentiment by cutting more staff and faculty.  As my readers know, these new cutters are not alone.

One of the latest examples is the University of Oregon, which is getting rid of some humanities faculty (adjuncts) and staff (mostly IT).

Some details: once more the humanities are hit.  The rationale here is typical, based on quantitative demand: “[UO’s College of Arts and Sciences dean] Marcus… said humanities classes have drawn fewer students in recent years.”

Why are these cuts happening?  You, dear reader, already know the drill by now.  First, university revenue is dropping.  After an uptick in student numbers during the financial crisis, “enrollment has dropped in recent years” and there is “less funding from the state of Oregon”.  Second, campus expenses are growing, namely the “steadily rising cost of employees’ pay and benefits”.  So, overall, “the university has to cut $8.8 million in spending next year to balance its budget”.

There’s another enrollment angle having to do with international students and Trump, too.  As I and others have been saying,

a drop of international student enrollment — brought by changes in the global economy and concerns over President Trump’s attempts to limit travel to the United States from six Muslim-majority countries — have led to lower enrollment in classed offered by the American English Institute.

But wait, there’s more! as the commercial use to say.  Or less, really, or fewer:

The College of Education and other schools at the university, including the School of Architecture and Allied Arts, are also likely to see faculty and staff reductions before the start of the next school year, UO Provost and Senior Vice President Scott Coltrane said.

For another example of American universities struggling with sustainability this month, UMass Boston is firing its chancellor because of similar problems.

[D]espite its new buildings and increased stature, the campus faces a deficit of up to $30 million, declining enrollment, overdue construction projects, and weakening fund-raising, according to UMass officials.

(Finances and enrollment… perhaps I should create an animated gif for that pair, so I don’t have to keep typing it so frequently.)

Faculty and staff who criticize the firing as being racially motivated don’t seem to disagree with the existence of UMB’s financial and enrollment problems.

I hate blogging about this trend.  But it’s a real one.  It doesn’t get enough attention.  And it points to major forces reshaping higher education.

There will be more.

Posted in research topics | 1 Comment

Our next reading: Tressie McMillan Cottom, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy

Last week I asked you all to vote for the next reading in our online book club.  After some good discussion and 88 votes, the selection was clear:

Cottom, Lower Ed (cover)Tressie McMillan Cottom, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. (publisher; Amazon)

This critical look at how the for-profit higher education sector boomed and took advantage of many Americans clearly appeals to you, and is definitely a major education book for 2017.  It may point us to what comes next, especially if Trump tries to restart the for-profit edu industry.

Later this week I’ll post a reading schedule and links to materials.  For now, grab yourself a copy.

If you’re new to our book club… welcome!  The way it works is I post about selections (circa one chapter) every week.  Each post is assigned a tag, https://bryanalexander.org/tag/lower-ed/, so you can easily work back through them.  Read on your own pace.  You can share thoughts by comments on each post and/or on Twitter (hashtag LowerEd) and/or your own posts on a blog, Google+, LinkedIn, etc.  People have also sometimes made stuff elsewhere, like Google Docs, Hypothes.is annotations, web apps (really), and hosted images.  This is a distributed book club; please participate as you see fit.  For examples of our earlier discussions, head to the book club page.

I also want to thank the many commentators and voters.  Some offered additional titles beyond those in the poll, and I’ve added a bunch to our next reading survey.

Stay tuned for the schedule post, and happy reading.

Posted in readings | Tagged | 11 Comments

A short digital story about forests, snowshoeing, and memory

Over the past two days it snowed up here in Vermont’s Green Mountains, despite it being April.  Therefore Ceredwyn and I went snowshoeing in the woods.

To document and reflect on the experience, I made a short digital story:

This is in the classic StoryCenter model.  The topic is autobiographical.  The length comes in at just under 3 minutes.  The media items include photographs, one video clip, a voiceover, and one extra soundtrack (environmental sounds).  It differs slightly in that there isn’t any music, because I wanted to focus on the natural setting, and in not having any credits, because I made everything,

As we progress towards moving away, making such digital stories is both poignant (is this the last Vermont snowfall we’ll experience?) and extra-reflective.

Posted in digitalstorytelling, personal | 3 Comments

An update on the staggering mass of student loan debt

How are Americans paying for higher education through student loans?  The New York Federal Reserve Bank offered an update this week.

tl;dr version: student debt continues to rise.

In detail: the total amount of student debt rose to more than $1.3 trillion.  (Have we just become used to the heap of student loan debt being greater than a trillion dollars?)   By “rose”, the NY Fed analysts mean “an increase of about 170 percent from 2006”.  The bank’s chair goes further, stating that “[s]tudent debt has increased more than fivefold over the past 14 years”.

"Student Debt Totaled $1.3 Trillion in 2016, Up 170% from 2006"

How did this happen?  Simply put, “more students are taking out loans, the loans are for larger amounts, and the speed with which borrowers repay their debts has slowed down.”

"More Borrowers and Larger Balances"

Notice that average balance, just over $34,000.  That’s “up nearly 70% from 10 years ago”.

Repayment isn’t doing well: “the pay down progress of recent cohorts continues to decline.”

Now, the breakdown of amounts is interesting, skewed heavily by a small population:

While about 36 percent of student debt holders owed less than $10,000, and 65 percent owed less than $25,000, only about 5 percent of student debt holders owed more than $100,000 in debt in 2016. Yet these big-balance borrowers account for nearly 30 percent of the total balances outstanding, so their outcomes and repayment success have a disproportionate influence on the overall picture.

At a broader level, something very interesting is going on with the debt Americans hold.  Remember the idea back in 1990-2010, that more people should own houses?  We’re backing away from that.  Instead, “borrowers have shifted away from housing-related debt (including first mortgage and home equity lines of credit) toward auto and student loan debt.”  So we’re getting into home ownership less to a degree, especially for those who owe high student loan amounts.  Instead we’re into buying cars and university credits.  As another NYFed post puts it, “college attendees with student debt (“debt” in the rest of the post) have lower homeownership rates than their peers who do not take out debt.”

"Housing Debt is $1T Below Previous Peak; Student and Auto Debt up $700B and $350B"

But when I say “we”, that isn’t quite accurate.  There’s a sharp class distinction:

We see a shift toward auto and student loans and away from mortgages by those from lower-income areas, whereas mortgage balances of individuals from higher income areas have nearly caught up with the 2008 peak.

So the rich continue to buy houses and more expensive properties.  For everyone else… they get cars and college time.  Escalating income inequality at work, ladies and gentlemen.

(That rising car loan bit fascinates me, since younger people are buying fewer cars.  It turns out that older people are going more deeply into debt: “borrowers age sixty and older now hold 22.5 percent of the total outstanding balances, compared to 15.9 percent in 2008; meanwhile balances held by borrowers under age fifty have declined”.  So older people owe more for cars, and younger people for higher ed, generally?)

For all kinds of debt, student loans are now the most likely to be seriously delinquent.  That wasn’t the case until very recently.  Time was credit card and mortgage debts were the hardest to repay.  Not now:

"As Credit Quality Improves, Certain Delinquency Rates Fall"

One reason for this debt-holding acceleration is, unsurprisingly, rising college costs.  Consider this data from the College Board:

Between 2011-12 and 2016-17, published tuition and fee prices rose by 9% in the public four-year sector, by 11% at public two-year colleges, and by 13% at private nonprofit four-year institutions, after adjusting for inflation.

“after adjusting for inflation” is an important detail.  It means sticker prices went up even further.

So where does this leave American higher education?  What does it tell us about the future of higher ed?

  1. Unless state governments break formation and start seriously paying into public universities, the costs of the latter will keep rising, meaning debt for those students will grow further.
  2. Increasing income inequality seems to play out in debt, with the poorest taking on huge loans that they struggle to repay, while the wealthiest don’t, and also buy more houses.
  3. Tuition freezes seem to have done little to mitigate these trends.  Perhaps they’ll fade away.
  4. The Trump administration shows no signs of taking steps to improve the situation.
  5. Decreasing or plateau-level enrollment means colleges and universities will have to increase tuition and fees, which means more student debt.
  6. So… expect more of this.  When should total debt crest $2 trillion, 2024?

(via Anya Kamenetz at NPR)

Posted in future of education, Uncategorized | 3 Comments