Jeffrey Selingo’s College (Un)bound


Jeff Selingo’s book cover

I found myself in equal measure nodding my head in agreement and shaking my head in protest as I read Jeffrey Selingo’s book College (Un)bound:  The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).

Selingo draws a clear picture of the formidable “disruptive” forces driving change on America’s college campuses—the “sea of red ink” brought on by the Great Recession, diminishing state support to colleges, diminishing pools of students willing and able to pay full tuition, the increasing pathways that students have to credentials, including “unbundled alternatives” like MOOCs, and the growing gap, whether right or wrong, between the rising cost of college and the perceived return on investment to the individual and society.  Add to these forces the increased demand for a more “personalized” or “customized” education (the effect) from students who are more heterogeneous in their backgrounds, abilities and needs and the digital revolution that has given anyone with an internet connection free access to courses from the nation’s elite institutions—Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and among a growing list others.

Selingo predicts, and I agree, that these inexorable forces will change higher education forever, forcing campuses to offer more personalized education and mentoring, more hybrid classes, “unbundled” credentials leading to degrees, more fluid timelines for students to start and stop, and  reform of the college funding structure.

College (Un)bound is an overview of the current state of higher education from the point of view of a reporter writing for the benefit of the general public, particularly students and their families.  Selingo, who is Editor at Large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, plays the role of the experienced and informed tour guide leading the reader through the unfamiliar territory of American higher education (for example, he explains that the American Council on Education is “the umbrella organization for dozens of higher-education associations”) and interpreting dense academic research in remarkably accessible, lucid prose, studies like Bowen’s Crossing the Finish Line, Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift, and Katz and Goldin, The Race Between Education and Technology.  He engages useful concepts like Richard Florida’s “means migration” and Daniel Pink’s concepts of creativity.   He uses a storytelling, case study approach, relying on examples of real students on real college campuses to illustrate his points.   The effect is to give us a sense of the heterogeneity of college students on multiple pathways through a variety of institutions.

Yet Selingo’s reporterly use of anecdotes, and his commitment to simplify complexities for his readers leads him to make infuriatingly over-generalized statements like the following sampling:

What you witness are campuses where the students are customers first, classrooms are filled with adjunct professors who rush off to their next job after class, and students spend very little time engaged in studying or learning….

The classroom has become one giant game of favor exchanges between students, professors, and administrators.  When they each play their parts, everyone comes out a winner.  Students receive better grades, adjuncts keep their jobs year after year, full-time professors win tenure or have to spend less time dealing with students complaining about bad grades, and administrators are rewarded with more money and higher rankings….

Right now, colleges have a corner on the credential market, and a credential is the ticket to most good jobs.  That’s why colleges can charge whatever they want for that piece of paper….

How rigorously colleges prepare students for the workforce, as well as mature them for life, will play a greater role in the calculation of value.  And on that front, many colleges don’t measure up….

Nearly every school has gateway courses that essentially mimic similar classes on other campuses, right down to the textbooks they assign.  I call them commodity courses….

There are about 21 million students taking on about 4500 two- and four-year colleges and universities in the U.S.  Statements this broad are bound to be as right as they are wrong, and ultimately meaningless.

Okay.  I have to confess to some defensiveness in the face of the picture that Selingo draws of college leaders and administrators who are the embodiment of all that is wrong with higher education.  In Selingo’s view, university administrators are out of touch, old-fashioned leaders of a “risk-averse, self-satisfied industry” by following “the same tired playbook.”  We are braggarts who cheat and game the system of college rankings to our favor.  Ten years into college leadership, I have developed a pretty thick skin, so this doesn’t rankle me much.  I understand that in the game of pass the buck of responsibility and blame, The Administration is the easiest target to hit—standing tall and obvious like some oafish giant.  I get that.  I also get that there is some essence of hard-to-take truth in Selingo’s picture of higher education and its leadership, and I think that the book has uses for college administrators, staff and faculty who are willing to take a hard look at our public perception.

As I read College (Un)bound, I thought that Selingo seemed to be trying to do for the current state of higher education what Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat did for globalization–move it from a classroom conversation among academics to a kitchen table conversation among students and their families.   I found myself missing the ebullience of Tom Friedman, who is able to balance a bracing presentation of facts with an excitement about what might be next.

While College (Un)bound serves its purpose for its intended audience, it makes me realize that among the growing stack of books on my shelf in the genre of higher-education-is-a-broken-mess, I am longing for an honest assessment and useful map to help all of us–students, families, faculty, administrators–navigate the dangerous seas of change in higher education. Will someone please write a book soon about how the upheaval in higher education may actually, in the long run, be good for students, good for society and maybe even good for higher education itself and include a map to get us there?  Please?

Questions for a Campus Discussion of College (Un)bound

As I say above, College (Un)bound is not a guide for administrators and faculty on how to fix higher education.  In distilling the issues down, College (Un)bound skims over or omits urgent campus issues such as the increased reliance on part-time adjunct instructors, the future of tenure, remedial education and college readiness, binge drinking on residential campuses, the confusion caused by the turnover of top level college leaders.

Even so, I think the book would be a useful and provocative common reading on any campus, starting with the generalizations like the ones listed above.  I will be discussing the book with academic leaders on my campus.  I’ve included below some of the questions that we will be using to guide our discussion.

1.  Identify two to three sentences, brief passages or ideas that struck you as particularly true, false, surprising, shocking, etc., in Selingo’s book and be prepared to share your perspective with the group.   What does it mean for us at this institution?  For you and your work on campus?

2.  Selingo identifies five forces of disruption that he argues “will change higher education forever.”   Is there evidence that these forces are already having an effect on our institution?  Where do you see them at play?  How might these forces change our institution “forever”? How might we adapt to these changes in a way that ensures a sustainable future for our institution?

3.  In his conclusion, Selingo reframes his point about the forces changing higher education in more positive terms, identifying “five ways higher education will change in the future.”  How might our institution adopt some or all of these five changes?  For example, what would it look like if we offered a more personalized education, a balance of hybrid classes, unbundled degrees with fluid timelines for completion?  What will it take to get there?

4.  In one of the final sections of the book, Future Forward, Selingo lists about twenty institutions that he considers “forward-thinking universities to keep an eye on.” What would it take for our institution to be listed in this group of twenty innovative institutions?

5.  Finally, Selingo’s book, which is written for students and parents, lists questions that prospective students should ask about colleges or universities that they are considering.  If at the next open house or orientation you were asked by a parent or a student the questions in Selingo’s “Checklist for the Future” (pages 2018-212), how would you answer these questions?


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