By Debra Sulai

Bringing Higher Education to Market: College (Un)bound

As its title suggests, Jeffrey Selingo’s recent entry into the progressively more crowded higher-education-in-crisis genre is intended to help parents and students find the best academic and financial fit from among an ever-widening array of options.

A career journalist and Editor-at-Large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Selingo does not hold academic credentials. While highly readable, College (Un)bound: The Future of Highter Education and What it Means for Students, is a work of reporting, rather than history or theory. Consequently, it may be most useful for readers considering a career in higher education, those who are in a position to influence policy, or for the intended audience of students and parents. For these readers, this book is an engaging (if at times dispiriting) look at the present and possible future of higher education.

American Higher Education: From Present to Future

The book is divided into three main sections. The first, “How We Got Here,” is a litany of problems (credentialism, student as consumer, and student debt) that will be familiar to anyone involved in higher education. Selingo identifies the root of the problem in the “Lost Decade” of 1999-2009, when colleges, believing that the market for education was near limitless, spent well beyond their means and strayed far from their core mission in order to “get ahead.”

Selingo uses many examples to support his claims, but he tends to choose the most extreme: the student with over $120,000 in student loans or the most highly leveraged institution in the country in contrast to Harvard, Princeton, or Cornell. While he commendably steers clear of the more radical claims made about the End of the University, it is fair to ask how accurate his picture is.

Part two, “The Disruption,” addresses the external pressures on higher education, the use of big data to personalize education, and the growth of online/hybrid courses. Elsewhere, discussion of these innovations usually proceeds thus: colleges see online education as a way to to boost the bottom line. Faculty worry: if one MIT or Harvard MOOC can enroll a hundred thousand students, why will their own colleges pay them to teach those same topics? It is adjunctification to the power of ten.

But Selingo’s data could underpin an alternate narrative that would benefit faculty and students. The courses most amenable to online standardization are the ones that every department teaches, often using standard textbooks and syllabi. If these are converted to hybrid, self-paced courses, professors might be freed to teach more of the upper-level both students and professors tend to prefer. Professors could then do more research, spend more time mentoring students, and create the sorts of programs that Selingo highlights as being good for students and institutions.

In the final, longest section, “The Future,” Selingo extrapolates from current trends to predict the shape of University 2.0. Tomorrow’s students will be more mobile, cobbling together credits from a variety of sources, awarded for a range of activities beyond the standard 3-credit-hour lecture course. For most students, knowledge and skills acquired will matter more than choice of major or time served. The four-year residential college experience will be reserved for the wealthy, the elite, and (perhaps paradoxically) those too immature for the working world.

According to Selingo, a student’s best bet during college is to find a faculty mentor, gain research experience, go abroad, and take risks. While the way a college education is delivered may change, Selingo argues strongly that for tomorrow’s workers, but more importantly, for a healthy society, college is more necessary than ever — and thus it is urgent that colleges and universities succeed in their educational mission.

For readers wanting to skip over the reporting, the conclusion could stand alone as a compendium of Selingo’s major arguments. The first appendix, “Future Forward,” highlights nineteen colleges and universities, each with a different approach to changing market forces. The second appendix, “Checklist for the Future,” is a list of practical questions for parents and students to ask about an institution, meant to get beyond a college’s glossy self-promotional material.

Both appendices could be helpful for faculty: the former in thinking about what might work at their own institution, and the latter for rating the health of any organization they might consider joining.

Will the Center Hold?

Selingo’s approach to this topic creates some curious contradictions that betray a deeper conflict over the purpose of higher education. For instance, his hypothetical “student of the future” attends no less than eight institutions in four years on his way to a bachelor’s degree. As a typical example, this seems improbable. It would take a highly motivated student with a high degree of knowledge about her available options to create and follow that kind of program. And since Selingo’s key concerns throughout the book are a lack of fit between student and institution, a dearth of adequate pre-college advising, and students who start but don’t finish, this seems an odd vision to advance.

And the book’s title is also at odds with his three “schools of the future” — Arizona State University, Southern New Hampshire University, and the University of Central Florida — all of which have responded to the challenges of today’s higher education climate by getting bigger (Arizona State has 72,000 students) and bundling more kinds of education together in order to serve ever more diverse student bodies.

But for faculty readers, the most unsettling claims are likely to be those about teaching: Selingo seems to lack a deep understanding of the profession. Faculty are discussed rarely, and then only as adjuncts, disrupters, or superstars. The majority of college professors are portrayed as luddites with little knowledge or enthusiasm for pedagogy or innovation, who resist any whisper of change to their rote teaching (95). For a book about the future of education in which he notes that student connections with faculty are critical to a good college experience, this perspective is disheartening, but perhaps reflective of the faculty’s diminished role in the contemporary university.

While the overall tone of the book is helpful and rather more hopeful than many other titles one can think of (The Last Professors, The Fall of the Faculty, “The End of the University,” etc.), the bottom line of the book is that college students are paying too much for too little. And while Selingo attempts to portray both education and the mission of colleges and universities as about more than return-on-investment credentialing and career prep, in the end, his recommendations and predictions bow to market forces and student preferences, leading one to ask, is “education on their terms” (175) really an education at all?

Selingo repeatedly states that American higher education is the envy of the world. Yet there is little here about what made it that way or what it does well, which would be just as welcome as his suggestions on how to improve what is not working. But his primary message is clear: despite vocal pronouncements of its imminent demise, college is here to stay; for the sake of future graduates, we should make it better. And for their own sakes, colleges must adapt, because the market won’t go away, either.

About the Author

Debra Sulai holds a Ph.D. in religious ethics from the University of Chicago Divinity School and a Master's degree in theology from Regent College (Canada). She has taught at several colleges and universities, most recently as Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Siena College. Her research focuses on applied ethics and politics and she is a vocal advocate for a more just and humane academic labor system, particularly for contingent faculty. Debra currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband, who is also an academic.

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