Jeffrey Selingo's College Unbound: the Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students: A Review

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The ever-changing world of higher education is weathering perhaps its most harrowing storm yet. In the age of online education, flipped classrooms, and differentiated learning, the gusting winds of change are testing the steady course of modern academics. We are left to wonder, what does the future look like for the American university? Is there a future?

Jeffrey Selingo’s College Unbound is a serious response to that pressing question. Selingo brings a wealth of experience to the fore, having worked sixteen years as the top editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education and having published on education topics with Washington Post, New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal. He is also a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech. The future of higher education, he thinks, will be marked by change, innovation, and progress, with new solutions looming for problems we haven’t even discovered yet. In this 238-page book, Selingo lays out his overall case not as a singular argument but rather as a thoughtful discussion of educational pitfalls and safety measures. The overall effect of this book is quite hopeful. While some voices warn of an apocalyptic fallout when the “educational bubble” bursts, Selingo argues that we are more likely experiencing the natural evolutionary change of education over the ages. Change is not a sign of death and disaster but rather life-giving adaptation.

Overview

In chapters 1–3, Selingo lays out “How We Got Here.” He contends that schools exaggerate their credentials by inflating grades, pandering to nonacademic priorities, obscuring data, and employing slick marketing tactics. The effect is that schools cost more than their education is worth. In chapters 4–6, he discusses “The Disruption,” including the shift toward private and for-profit colleges, the migration to online college, and the changing profile of the typical college student (e.g., the increased number of part-timers, those over 30, and vocational track students). In the last section, chapters 7–10, he lays out “The Future” of education, notably online, competency-based, unbundled, and boasting a greater emphasis on “learning how to learn” pedagogy. Selingo includes closing appendices that lend practical application for these concepts. The first appendix, “Future Forward,” commends particular school programs for innovative solutions. The second, “Checklist for the Future,” poses questions parents and students should ask of any prospective college.

Selingo’s style of writing is diplomatic and balanced. He mutes political tones, showing the composure of a veteran journalist. He reveals his depth of knowledge in the field by arranging his topics in anticipation of the kinds of questions readers might ask.

With his tempered tone, Selingo generally avoids extreme or controversial opinions. While some commentators warn of an imploding education bubble, and others predict a radical shift to online learning, Selingo hints at both without committing to either. He retains an air of journalistic objectivity which, at times, can be frustrating when readers want to hear what he thinks rather than hearing him report the thoughts of others. Nevertheless, this beneficial objectivity means he abstains from narrow partisan squabbles.

Charting the Educational Landscape

The educational landscape Selingo envisions is one of variety, featuring an array of educational options spanning online and classroom education, including liberal arts and STEM-heavy courses in one-year, two-year, and four-year degree tracks, as well as offering internships, study abroad programs, and apprenticeships. Selingo envisions this for schools at every tier of the higher education sector, from community colleges all the way up to Ivy league schools, all of them field-testing out-of-the-box solutions to age-old problems in education. One could argue that Selingo’s optimism stems from his vision of higher education as a free and competitive market. “Old school” trappings can die a natural death within free-market competition, while timeless truths and innovative solutions survive natural selection to dictate how new schools operate.

Selingo’s tone may be tempered, but it’s not boring. Instead he seems like a kid in a candy store, having a hard time deciding on any single way to invest his dollar. He is broad in his aim, raising awareness about the strengths and weaknesses of conventional schooling and online education while also highlighting potential solutions still in their trial period. So, instead of investing his book in a singular argument on how best to adapt education, he offers a wealth of ideas, some more promising than others, but all interesting.

Each of these ideas deserves more attention than Selingo can offer in one volume. He discusses open, online classes (p. 91), mixed mode format (a.k.a. hybrid classes, 98), reverse transfers (i.e., switching from a four-year to a two-year school, 111), and flipped classrooms (177). He also mentions innovative companies that are using the portability and flexibility of recent technology to expand education in bold new directions. For example, he sings the praises of Khan Academy, Udacity, Coursera, Open Learning Initiative, StraighterLine, Teach for America, and Venture for America.

The author covers too much ground to get particularly deep with any of it. Nor does he seem interested in a purely academic or intellectual critique. His aim comes across more practical than that. He’s brainstorming solutions to pressing problems. With this pragmatic goal in view, Selingo speaks to professional educators and school administrators. This book is well-designed for business-minded friends of academia—a common profile for University presidents—who are trying to figure out where they can best invest time, energy, and financial resources to achieve the greatest gains in educational outcomes. Note that Selingo speaks with the voice of a veteran reporter, as opposed to a professional educator, though he’s clearly seasoned in the field of education writing. He knows what teachers complain about, what industry professionals are talking about, and how administrators think and respond to problems. He also peppers the text with statistics showing his insights are based in solid research. But a reader might not get the impression that Selingo is an educator. Missing are the tell-tale, personal classroom stories teachers use to illustrate how educational theory worked (or not) in their own experience. No real-world examples from his classroom demonstrate how student interaction validates or invalidates a given approach. This distance may not be a bad thing however. Boots-on-the-ground educators may be too close to problems to see them clearly. Perhaps a bird’s eye view from a journalistic perspective offers the clearest picture of the problems and patterns at work in modern education.

Regarding those problems and patterns, Selingo covers the basics any futurist text on higher education must cover—decrying the exorbitant cost of college and noting the disparity between tuition and the practical value of a degree (35–51). He acknowledges government subsidies and regulations help insulate colleges from market forces (xxiv). Elsewhere, he admits grade inflation (19, 24) and its institutional equivalent, credential creep (10, 11). Many more examples could be cited.

The Lost Decade

Beyond these familiar critiques, however, Selingo offers his most unique contribution to the field of thought by coining what he calls the “lost decade.” This concept plays a major role in his explanation of the modern educational landscape; he refers to it often (20–33, 43–45, 58, 61, and 174).

I call the period from 1999 to 2009 the ’Lost Decade.’ It’s the time when a boom in high-school graduates gave colleges the opportunity to prepare for what’s coming next: fewer government dollars and a more diverse pipeline of students lacking academic skills but needing lots of financial aid. Like day traders in the dot-com boom and those who flipped homes during the housing bubble, college leaders spent the last decade chasing high-achieving students, showering them with scholarships to snatch them from competitors, and going deep into debt to build lavish residence halls, recreational facilities, and other amenities that contribute nothing to the actual learning of students. (XXV–XXVI)

He continues, ranting about the shimmering appetite for “more” as if he were describing the twinkling eyes of a cigar-smoking Mr. Moneybags—the epitome of crony capitalism.

More was the guiding principle of the Lost Decade—more buildings, more majors, more students, and of course, more tuition. To keep tuition dollars rolling in to support the whole enterprise, students were not exposed to a rigorous academic experience that would have prepared them for the working world, but instead were treated like customers to be pleased and placated. The era of more is finally coming to an end. It began unraveling after the financial crisis of 2008, and now the disrupters have colleges looking in their rearview mirrors. (XXV–XXVI)

While most of the book is even-tempered and optimistic, Selingo breaks form here. Some cynicism comes through in this section, in which he argues that higher tuition rates bleed students dry.

Selingo objects to the combination of profit incentives and a customer-based business model (19–34). In his understanding, when profit incentives are combined with a customer-based approach to education, the inevitable result is a trade-off: worse education in exchange for better marketing. The net effect is a high-cost, low-value college degree. Selingo may have a case. But to really understand how profit incentives inspire or hamper education, it would be useful for Selingo to have provided a greater diversity of voices on the subject—conservative and liberal economists, classical and modern educational theorists, and so on. Selingo has found something here, but the question is, what has he found?

Online Education

No book about the future of education would be complete without exploring online education. College Unbound is no exception. Selingo notes, “online learning has clearly moved from a fad to a fixture” and “the [online] format has the potential to reshape how we think about higher education” (97, 91). He depicts online education as more than a vague and general phenomenon. He shows how online education is being mapped in detail, field-tested by countless intrepid explorers who are trying out new ideas, finding what works and what doesn’t. Some of its territories are treacherous and some prosperous.

Ultimately, Selingo makes the case that batch dismissal and batch approval are equally naïve and irresponsible approaches to understanding the rise in online education. Online education is not some gimmick. It’s a new dimension of education, one that today includes a diverse range of options and demonstrable improvement over early shortcomings. For example, the no-credential Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were a passing fad for many colleges and while they survive today in archives and general resourcing, their collegiate role has been replaced by credentialed, degree-track, online classes. Likewise, isolated mail-it-in models of learning (i.e., correspondence courses) are now answered with social media groups, video chats, and classroom feedback. Online-only models are now complemented with hybrid models, where students can get the adaptability of online learning without sacrificing the in-person benefits of resident classes. Selingo notes all these developments so that, for the most part, he never discusses a problem in education without pointing to a viable solution.

Overall, Jeffrey Selingo’s College Unbound is a helpful exploration of the promise that remains in the future of higher education, particularly for teaching professionals and administrators. Conventional classroom education isn’t retired, dying, or decommissioned. It’s moving along just fine. But it will have to share the road with a lot of new, fast, and agile vehicles of learning. Education professionals should pay close attention so they don’t get run over.

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