College Unbound | Jeffrey J. Selingo

Summary of: College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students
By: Jeffrey J. Selingo


In ‘College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students,’ Jeffrey J. Selingo examines the state of the US higher education system, the shifting expectations of college graduates, and the increase in student debt. As colleges compete for rankings and students embrace a consumer mentality, the book explores how technology is changing the learning experience and unveils innovative online programs like Naviance, ConnectEDU, Degree Compass, and eAdvisor. Selingo discusses the impact of these transformations on the future of higher education and what it means for students, with an emphasis on the balance between accessibility, affordability, and quality of education.

The Booming Business of Higher Education

With 5,300 institutions and $490 billion in revenue, US colleges have become a hot commodity. Over 20 million students are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs, a third more than in the 90s. The bachelor’s degree is now considered the new high school diploma, with even low-skilled workers holding one. This demand has driven colleges to build new facilities and programs, while financial aid makes college more accessible. Despite the high cost, everyone seems to want a degree, making higher education a profitable industry.

The “Business-ification” of Higher Education

As colleges shift their focus from education to customer service, students expect to be satisfied and less responsible for their own success. The increased emphasis on student satisfaction has led to rising tuition costs and spending on student services. Universities have replaced full-time professors with adjuncts, leading to grade inflation and a decrease in critical thinking skills. Despite a lack of improvement in student achievement, students spend more time partying than studying. As colleges become more “business-like,” it’s important to reassess their priorities and ensure that education remains the top priority.

The Higher Education Debt Crisis

The higher education system in the United States has evolved in such a way that the cost of attending college has skyrocketed, while grants have been replaced with loans. As a result, colleges encourage students to attend based on emotional connections rather than cost and value. Private loans from banks that offer long-term debts have increased, and families often find themselves cycling through different types of student loans without realizing the long-term costs. Banks sometimes offer cruises and gifts to colleges to earn rankings as “preferred” lenders and to gain placements on lists of funders sent to students. Corruption occurs when financial-aid staff own stock in the companies of recommended lenders, sit on their corporate boards, and receive personal gifts. This deception is often found in a school’s “deceptive marketing practices and routine, widespread kickbacks”. In this context, states have been slashing higher education appropriations during each downturn in the economy since 1988 and never fully restoring the money when good times returned. This is causing states to start getting out of the business of supporting public higher education by 2022, leaving their colleges to scour the world for a shrinking share of full-paying students. Although higher education improves job potential and pay rates, starting salaries seldom match loan debt.

Higher Education in Financial Crisis

The financial crisis of 2008 had a significant impact on universities as they had to adapt to new financial challenges to ensure their future sustainability. The reduced fiscal support of public colleges, increased requests for financial aid, and reduced tuition fees hurt most colleges’ bottom line. Additionally, schools are faced with five other problems that were either introduced or heightened during the crisis. These problems include increased debt, decreased public funding, partial tuition, unbundling services, and questionable value. Higher education is facing an imminent change, and colleges must find new income streams to remain sustainable.

Education Reimagined

Higher education is undergoing a technological transformation that is changing the way students learn. Data mining technology such as Knewton, Learning Catalytics, and Naviance provide tailored lessons and support. Programs like Degree Compass and eAdvisor recommend courses and help students stay on track. While some worry about depersonalizing education, these technologies have the potential to increase student success and reduce college costs. The role of faculty is changing to that of a coach rather than a revered figure at the head of the class.

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