Jim Cullen: Review of Jeffrey Selingo's "College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students" (New Harvest, 2013)

tags: MOOCs, Jim Cullen, higher education, college, Jeffrey Selingo

Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His last book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press. His next book, A Brief History of the Modern Media, will be published next year by Wiley-Blackwell.

My teeth were on edge a few pages into the introduction of College (Un)Bound when Jeffrey Selingo first deploys the term he uses repeatedly to describe higher education in the United States: he calls it an "industry." The first sub-heading is called "A risk-averse, self-satisfied industry." A few pages later, he writes, "Colleges [by which I think he means administrators, or perhaps more specifically admissions officers] now view students as customers and market their degree programs as products." The proposition that students might be the product, and that this product might be civic, as opposed to simply economic, never appears to have crossed his mind -- or, at any rate, taken seriously.

But of course I'm speaking from the point of view of a vanishing species on the cusp of virtual irrelevance, if not extinction in this ecosystem (even though I don't happen to be a member of it myself): the liberal arts professoriate. Whether or not such people actually deserve their marginality is in any case beside the point: change is coming. Actually, it's already here: barely a third of all college students today are 18-24 year-olds attending traditional college institutions. And that, Selingo seems to believe (and seems to believe most other people with skin in the game also believe) is a good thing. They're right -- to a point.

The title of this book is indeed apt: Selingo describes an educational landscape in which the traditional bundling of educational services into a single collegiate experience is replaced by one in which an à la carte menu of goods and services gets procured in a way comparable to one buys an airline ticket or telecommunications services. Actually, the book itself seems redolent of the same logic: Selingo is an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, where parts of this book first appeared. It's published by New Harvest, an imprint of Amazon.com, and distributed through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

But I digress: the point here is that a college education is increasingly a matter of a student attending a series of institutions with different kinds of accreditation; of classes that are held in office parks rather than campuses; and courses that begin and end at all hours of the day or months of the year.

At the center of this transformation is technology, specifically online classes of the MOOC stripe. Though widely viewed by traditional educators as cheap, freeze-dried learning of dubious value, Selingo makes a persuasive case that such a view is far too simplistic. For one thing, such courses are often produced by rock-star faculty who are far more engaging than "risk-averse, self-satisfied" lecturers relying on stale notes and a dry manner. For another, the interactive features in many online courses allow students to tailor their pace and zero in on difficult material in ways that are genuinely superior to that of the one-size-fits-all approach of the traditional classroom. Even the supposed unique strength of the intimate seminar -- serendipitous conversation and interaction between student and teacher -- can at least be approximated in the growing social dimension of study groups, social events, and other tools of community-building. In fact, Selingo argues, any notion that the future of education pits online vs. classroom learning against each other is mistaken: they're increasingly converging toward each other, and a hybrid experience (of admittedly varying proportions) is likely to be the default setting for college education wherever it takes place.  

Such developments are putting already cash-strapped institutions under enormous pricing pressures. Colleges and universities have long used low-cost, high margin basic courses to subsidize the cost of more expensive specialized ones, which makes them reluctant to cede ground to challengers that will destroy their economic model. But in this regard they hold a trump card: As Selingo notes, a website can compete with a newspaper at any time, but online schools can't issue diplomas. Online educators are experimenting with credentialing devices like "badges" that its graduates can sell on employers, and over time that may well work in breaking the credentialing firewall.

Then again, it may not. One of the more striking near-silences in College (Un)Bound is the dearth of space Selingo gives to for-profit institutions and the genuinely plausible skepticism they have engendered in their financing and the experience they purvey to students. DeVry University gets a single entry in the index; the University of Phoenix gets a passing mention two times before getting a paragraph in the conclusion that notes that it's not faring so well. Amid all this breathless discussion of the "the disruption" reshaping higher education, one might have liked to see a chapter on how the disrupters themselves have been disrupted, and whether or not there are cautionary tales for those who think they know what the future looks like.

As a high school teacher, I also found myself wondering what the implications of all this might be for secondary education. Adolescents, for example, are no less likely to learn better online than they do in a classroom (indeed their tolerance for sitting still in a for more than ten minutes without an electronic device is virtually nonexistent). But also it's hard to imagine adults leaving children to those devices. Perhaps schooling really truly is more than information, a grade, a degree. Then again, I too may soon be out of a job.

Still, as Selingo notes, Harvard isn't going anywhere. And, he faithfully reports, employers regularly invoke the need for critical thinkers, people who are as more likely become that way by reading novels than by clicking boxes. But such people are -- have always been -- a minority. Notwithstanding the pastoral imagery landscape architects conjure on country-club campuses, the finest institutions of higher learning have usually been scruffy places. It's a small price to pay for that precious (yes, in both senses of that term) freedom: a life of the mind.

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