You don’t have to read too far into Jeff Selingo‘s new book, College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, to learn that Selingo takes a jaundiced view on the way many colleges and universities try to brand themselves.
And who can blame him? As an editor of a major media outlet for higher education, he’s heard more than his fair share of pitches from college presidents who aspire to elevate their institutions to greatness. Over and over again, these academic leaders deliver the same sales talk.
“In my fifteen years at the Chronicle of Higher Education, I’ve seen this horserace play out daily,” Selingo writes in the very first chapter of his book.
Hundreds of college presidents have come through our Washington offices, accompanied by an army of public-relations staff, piles of slick brochures, and inch-thick strategic plans. The sales pitch would usually go something like this: We want to be in the top ten of (fill-in-the-blank) ranking and to achieve that goal, we plan on some combination of the following: Build a new medical school, start a cutting-edge academic program, capture more federal research dollars, lure star faculty, attract better students in places we never recruited before, and so on.
They are angling for news coverage of their grand ambitions so colleagues at other schools will know that so-and-so university is getting more exclusive.
Their hope, Selingo adds, is that other college and university presidents will see the coverage, think more highly of these institutions, and give them good marks in the annual beauty pageant known as the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Because for many college presidents, that’s what matters most. “Prestige in higher education is like profit is to corporations,” Selingo writes.
A pitch of his own
In College Unbound, Selingo is delivering a sales pitch of his own. He’s asking readers — ostensibly students and their families, but I know a lot of people in my shoes have also picked up the book — to think differently about the business of education.
“The colleges and universities enrolling most Americans will be radically different places in ten years,” Selingo writes. “Ultimately, it is the students of tomorrow who will drive colleges to reimagine the future of higher education.”
These future college students are tech-savvy and are growing up immersed in a digital, hyper-connected world. “They feel comfortable in a social world that lives online,” Selingo writes. In the classroom, however, “they remain largely uninterested in learning through traditional teaching methods.”
It’s a solid pitch Selingto is making. Throughout College (Un)bound, he supports his argument with loads of data and examples of the myriad challenges facing higher education, and illustrations of institutions that are thinking differently about how they conduct business. He writes extensively about some of the more visible and successful all-star innovators of higher ed, like Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University and Michael Crow of Arizona State. He shines the spotlight on programs and campuses that are more focused on students and learning than on reputation and rankings.
Yes, it’s a terrific pitch. But I wonder if higher ed is ready to buy what he’s selling.
The frog in the kettle
Despite the stark news reports about the state of higher education in the United States over the past five years, it seems the great mass of college and university leaders are still like the proverbial frog in the kettle. For years complacent in the room-temperature waters of the status quo, they managed over time to adjust as the water grew slightly warmer and warmer. A budget trim here, a program cut there, a slight tuition increase, a new fundraising campaign — adjustments that allowed the frog to cope with the changing environment and adjust to the kettle’s new normal.
But with the recession of 2008 and the rise of online learning, the heat is on. How will the frog in the kettle adjust now?
If you know the story (which is not grounded in scientific research, by the way), things did not end well for the frog.
The good news
The good news for higher education is that some colleges and universities are jumping out of the kettle and into new approaches. Some are aided by startups (not only the infamous MOOCs but also by companies like Knewton, an “adaptive learning” software designed to help students find the right courses and majors) while others are taking a more businesslike approach to operations (at Crow’s ASU, residence hall management is outsourced). While some of these approaches are innovative or distinctive, none of the examples Selingo cites appear to be irreplicable. For that matter, many of the approaches are probably under way, to some degree, at scores of other universities not cited in his book.
Are these approaches the path out of our current crisis in higher education? The jury is still out. No doubt some of the approaches will fail, and over then next decade we’ll probably see some go out of business. Some of the approaches will require a paradigm shift in the way colleges are run — moving from a faculty-focused approach to a more customer-focused approach, where students (and other customers, such as research agencies or the companies who hire our graduates) have a greater say in how we run our institutions. (Speaking of those other customers, Selingo doesn’t talk much in his book about the impact federal funding cuts will have on research universities. Nor does he discuss the big business of Division I athletics. It would have been nice to read his perspectives on both.)
So, some institutions will succeed in this new student-centered world. Others will fail to come to terms with the changing environment and slowly boil to death.
The road to marginalization?
The road to marginalization “would be wide and well-traveled,” Sevier writes. “Unfortunately, we are already seeing some traffic as schools, in response to revenue shortfalls, are turning to the cost side of the ledger and reducing expenditures in staffing, co- and extracurricular activities, facility maintenance, and other areas.
“While this reduction in expenditures may help balance the ledger in the near term, it almost always leads to an obvious loss of quality. In other words, marginalization. Unfortunately, marginalization almost always leads to more marginalization.”
It seems Sevier and Selingo have a similar perspective. But both offer hope. It just requires us all recognizing the kettle we’re in and having the will to jump out of it.