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Business Officer Magazine

Author and Economist Says Pundits Are Wrong

"They say the American dream is dead—that our once-admired higher education system is going the way of the factory or the family farm," said Sylvia Nasar, addressing the opening general session on Sunday morning. Nasar, a journalist, professor, and the best-selling author of A Beautiful Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1998), begged to differ. "The pundits have said the same thing about every one of the 35 economic downturns that the United States has experienced since the Civil War-a period, by the way, compared to which the average annual standard of living has gone up 15-fold."

Nasar knows her economics, having researched and written Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius (Simon and Schuster, 2011), a sweeping narrative about the invention of modern economics. "Think about it. Higher education was once the sole provenance of the top 1 percent; now it is something to which many can and do aspire. What's striking about these dire predictions is that they are so far off. While it's not easy to tell the difference between a temporary setback and a long-term trend, mostly the past remembers better than it lived."

The geniuses who founded economics, although they weren't generals, changed the lives of everyone on the planet, explained Nasar. They turned the "dismal science" into a tool that improved economic conditions for millions. Nasar went on to explain how the ideas of the early economists finally allowed mankind to "throw off the yoke of thinking that life never departed from a brutal struggle for existence." Of course, the role of education became a big part of that transformation. "In 1869," said Nasar, "only 1 percent of Americans ages 18–24 attended college. By the 1980s, that number was 25 percent. And, by 2010, nearly 40 percent of Americans were accessing higher education."

Her conclusion: "Universities are not going away, whatever their problems. The demand for college education is still greater than the supply." She also noted that the fastest growing occupations—health care, technology support, and education itself—require higher education, and that the arc of the development of economics is ongoing. "I have no doubt that you, the business officer, and your institutions are the future," Nasar ended.

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