We returned from our alumni trip last Saturday night, and I spent the week settling back into our work at the college. We celebrated the Fourth of July in Santa Barbara, enjoying a wonderful barbecue in Montecito before descending on the harbor for the annual fireworks display.
My reading this week has focused on a book by Jeffrey J. Selingo, editor at large of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the industry-leading news weekly for higher education. At times provocative and groundbreaking, Selingo’s book offers solutions that fluctuate between helpful and simplistic.
The book is arranged in three sections: 1) How We Got Here; 2) The Disruption; and 3) The Future. All three provide helpful if incomplete analysis. His conclusions and proposals for the future range from thoughtful and worthy of serious consideration to anemic and lacking serious warrant.
Let me offer some specifics. He begins the first section with a brief overview of the revenue involved in higher education:
- $490 billion in revenue per year
- $440 billion in goods and services
- $990 billion in net assets
- 3.5 million students
But according to Selingo, these heady numbers have caused us to lose focus on our core mission: teaching students and researching the next big discoveries. He rightly notes that 40 percent of the majors offered today didn’t exist 20 years ago, and he claims that the current top 10 majors didn’t even exist in their current form 10 years ago. He is agnostic on this point, acknowledging that many of these majors reflect huge new fields of inquiry previously unknown while also identifying the growth and proliferation of majors with little relevance or capacity for serious study and research. He seems to overreach in the opening section by describing a growing credential consciousness that he paints as superficial and disproportionally driven by demand for new revenue. His observations contain some truth, but these realities aren’t ubiquitous, and they don’t adequately explain the many innovations initiated in higher education.
Selingo spends an entire chapter focused on the mentality of the “customer is king” that has taken over higher education without giving any attention to the huge influence of this same mentality in the broader society and culture. He then begins identifying some of the manifestations of these realities in rising prices, the nature and make up of millennials and their propensity to change colleges almost as often as they change clothes. He offers a helpful engagement with “Academically Adrift,” a book focused on the lack of persistence to graduation of today’s undergraduate, and cites the growing achievement gap illuminated by the CLA, the College Learning Assessment instrument.
What I find missing in the first section—and throughout the book—is a prolonged engagement with other contemporary works on the challenges facing higher education, most notably, “Why Does College Cost So Much.” This work, written by two economists from William and Mary, provides context by characterizing higher education as an industry similar in scope and preparation to medicine, law, actuarial science and other professions that depend on highly trained people whose practice requires significant education and persistent face-to-face contact. Selingo proposes the adoption of online and hybrid models of education as one solution, and his observations of the effectiveness and limitations of these models seem reasonable. We’re all closely watching the rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) to see what works, who is worthy of following and how they will be certified for credit. Notably, the American Council on Education, the gatekeeper in determining acceptable rigor justifying college credit, has recently approved five MOOCs for accreditation.
Selingo provides a helpful critique of the challenges of our financial aid situation, its unnecessary complexity and its lack of easy or compelling solutions. He misses the mark in not spending enough time breaking down the different sectors of higher education debt or the emergence of for-profit institutions and the unique role they’ve played in accelerating the financial aid crisis. It would be especially helpful to have a more nuanced understanding of where the debt lies and what is a reasonable solution to its challenges.
At Westmont, a private, not-for-profit, national liberal arts college, our average student indebtedness is just under $25,000, slightly above the national level for all colleges and universities. In addition, the default rate on student loans nationally is more than 8 percent, while the average at Westmont is less than 2 percent. Selingo states that “excessive borrowing is the biggest problem facing higher education, and it hurts everyone.” There is no doubt some truth in what he says, but this is not universally true and needs wider analysis.
In the second part, he identifies five disruptive forces:
- The federal budget crisis
- State cutbacks
- The diminishing number of full-pay students
- Growing “unbundled alternatives”
- The growing value gap
All these factors are real, but, once again, some of his proposals lack appropriate nuance and don’t offer proven alternatives to our current efforts. He concludes the fourth chapter with a comment similar to those I have heard during my 22 years in higher education, “Technology has rapidly transformed nearly every industry. While colleges have spent millions to outfit campuses with wireless technology, purchase the latest computing power, and hire IT staff, technology has failed until now to improve quality, bring greater efficiency, and lower costs, as the next two chapters will detail.”
Despite some helpful critiques, he still falls short of providing supporting evidence that the new efforts are solving all the problems he identifies. He certainly has his favorite colleges and universities. Frankly, I think the innovations are noteworthy and need to be considered, but it’s too early to tell if they will solve our problems, such as the growing learning gap. In California alone, we anticipate a shortfall of 1.5 million trained and educated workers as early as 2020. This will present a huge and growing challenge to a robust economy. It may also stimulate additional immigration reform.
Later this week, or perhaps by next weekend, I’ll come back to the second section and Selingo’s critiques and proposals.
Gayle D. Beebe