‘College (Un)bound’ and the frog in the kettle

CollegeUnboundYou 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?

But the largest group of institutions may well end up not closing their doors, but becoming marginalized. This is something Bob Sevier of Stamats discusses in a recent blog post (At a Crossroad).

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.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

16 thoughts on “‘College (Un)bound’ and the frog in the kettle”

  1. The reason many institutions will fail to adapt is the same reason that the major powers of the world can’t agree on a plan to address climate change: in an environment of shared governance, where people are working against different objectives, it’s very difficult to reach agreement on what to do. Faculty do not have an incentive to maximize enrollment and revenue, and as a wise colleague of mine once said, “Tell me how you’re going to pay me and I’ll tell you how I’m going to act.” There are many good things about the shared governance model in traditional higher ed, but innovation requires giving decision-making power to one person (or a group that shares the same objectives) who then has the authority to implement the decisions.

  2. to prognosticate a little:
    1) haven’t seen an explanation for how things like ‘labs’ will be replaced by online learning. Not saying they won’t at some point. But doing a virtual version of a frog dissection is a poor alternative.

    2)I’ve take a bunch of moocs. On coursera, udemy, edX etc. you have to be REALLY motivated to keep up. Most of them, are just poor

    Which leads me to

    3)The reason universities are unimpressed is that as of now, the competition isn’t very good. In theory there’s a new paradigm shift, but would YOU hire someone to be your accountant who had a ‘degree’ from Coursera?

  3. Great thoughts, all. Thanks for sharing. This is obviously an important and sometimes contentious topic.

    Deborah – I’m not sure I agree that innovation necessarily requires consolidating the decision-making power into the hands a a select few. Shared governance does slow things down quite a bit, though, and innovation usually requires quick action and decision-making. And you’re right that shared governance has served higher ed well over the years, and prevented some radical shifts that may have taken our institutions far off course. There has to be a balance struck somewhere.

    Isaacson – I agree that lab-heavy courses or other hands-on types of learning experiences cannot be replicated in the online environment (at least, not very well). I work on a campus where there’s a lot of focus on science, engineering and the so-called experiential approach. But we’re also looking at ways to deliver instruction more efficiently. Does every university have to teach intro to chemistry in a face-to-face lecture setting? (This is an example from Selingo’s book.) Maybe it’s feasible that the lecture be taught online and the lab meet once a week. And even the lab could potentially be distributed geographically.

    1. I agree with your point about efficiency and I think we will come to a day where that will be the crux of the issue. Colleges won’t teach things that a person can (and should) be able to learn just as easily on her own. That will (hopefully) make schools refocus the core of their business. I wrote a short post on how I hope the universities of tomorrow will be more like children’s museums, I’d love to hear your thoughts – http://mosheisaacson.tumblr.com/post/44636053866/the-university-of-the-future

      1. Interesting..kind of like Montessori at the college level. My expectation (and hope) is that he result of this disruption will be more pathways for degree completion. For those students who are interested in the traditional “sit in a seat for 15 weeks” path to credits, that option will still exist, but students will also have the opportunity to take MOOCs for credit, get competency-based credits, use your “children’s museum” option, and perhaps other pathways we haven’t thought of yet. I’m not sure that the current innovations (MOOCS, etc.) that Selingo presents in the book will be the final answer, but I think that, just as we look back on Napster as the innovation that led to the revolution in the music industry, we’ll look back on MOOCs as the innovation that led to a much-needed revolution (or at least evolution) in higher ed.

      2. I like the idea of learning stations and the exploration opportunities a children’s museum offers. I could see that as part of a hybrid approach – as Deborah calls it, a Montessori approach at the college level.

      3. This post on children’s museum style university reminds me of how David McCullough described Harvard (College then) in his biography of John Adams. The faculty were more mentors and lectures were essentially stations to give the students opportunities to explore.

  4. I just finished reading College (Un)Bound, though I’ve heard Jeff talk about his research and some of his s at a bunch of conferences over the last year and a half. (I’ll note that he’s sounded more optimistic about the long-term recently, focusing more on solutions and less on the edupocalypse. Maybe that’s what comes of having to write a conclusion.)

    Like you, I was also struck by his comment on presidential visits to the Chronicle. To me, that’s a stark illustration of lack of imagination. What will help colleges and universities thrive in the future is a clear understanding of their unique contribution to the education of their students. Dare we call this differentiation?

    That’s why the part of College (Un)Bound I liked best was the “Future Forward” section. The institutions cited there understand the value of thinking differently about their core business — learning and teaching — and are differentiating themselves in the process.

    In that regard — and at a time when it seems that every expenditure outside an institution’s core business is being scrutinized — it is amazing to me that more presidents aren’t looking to capture substantial revenue from athletics budgets. Perhaps it’s because I have no personal interest in watching sports, but this is one remaining sacred cow that even Jeff avoids.

    1. Michael – I too liked the “Future Forward” section, and should have mentioned that in my review. I believe a lot of schools are taking some interesting approaches to try to address the challenges the book discusses, so it’s nice to see a few of them mentioned.

  5. That first graph should read:

    I just finished reading College (Un)Bound, though I’ve heard Jeff talk about his research and some of his observations at a bunch of conferences over the last year and a half. (I’ll note that he’s sounded more optimistic about the long-term recently, focusing more on solutions and less on the edupocalypse. Maybe that’s what comes of having to write a conclusion.)

  6. This is an argument that I have with my institution daily. It feels like dragging a dead weight uphill while I can see everyone passing me on motor scooters with their portfolio nicely bundled and conveniently packaged for the newest crop of incoming tech-savy students and educators. I think a major problem is trying to please donors and boards who often have difficulty understanding the usefulness and freedom that an online classroom experience provides not to mention the open flow of media. I have reservations just like many of my colleagues but I also feel the concern that our traditions must be flexible enough to accommodate this new population or risk losing the prestige that we have worked so hard to achieve.

    A major side effect of not having these resources quickly enough is that students and faculty do have access independently of the University–if we can’t keep up with the media stream and demonstrate competency, or more importantly mastery of the latest technology it becomes very obvious very quickly that the reputation of an institution may not be so deserved. In other words we risk wrecking all of the work of the past generations simply because of fear. It may be that there are failures and mistakes in moving quickly but the asset of having a level of prestige is that we can leverage that with the attractiveness of being risk-takers and seizing on the newest opportunities.

    This may sound wild and scary but ultimately what I am talking about is allowing a measure of control to go to incoming students and faculty–this is really the direction that individual user technology is taking us and where our next generations of donors are also pointing us. Rather than fighting this phenomenon we should step in as advocates and provide a source of leadership for this next generation. Our goals just as always should be about education and exploration: creating networks for collaborative learning, independent course selection, skill building opportunities to help users keep up with developing technology, product and course development think tanks to make the best possible use of new resources, engaged learning with multi-media and multi-national forums, etc.

    Additionally our fundraising efforts should incorporate the trends of the same generation–seek platforms that are guided by users and students, mold initiatives from the input of these same constituents. The goals are the same but the approach is new–allow donors to guide development–they do not want shepherds, they want knowledgeable counselors. Our development community should be equipped with the same resources as donor populations and reaching out to provide opportunities for philanthropy that reflect their interests.

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