Whose College Unbound?

Adding to the ever-growing library of “higher education is failing” is Jeffery J. Seligno’s College (Un)Bound: the Future of Higher Education and What It Means For Students. An editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, academia’s publication of record, Seligno is a well-respected writer on education issues.

College (Un)Bound

Seligno believes that higher education has lost its way, with quality decreasing and costs increasing. He finds higher education as a whole risk-averse and self-satisfied. Academia, he argues, acts as though it is insulated from broader market forces even though it actually is not. Time will demand great shifts in education, he opines, and many agree with him. He claims that academia spent too much money and time from 1999-2009 chasing the wrong vision and that we will be paying for these excesses for many years. The book’s clear organizational structure (how we wound up in our current status, an overview of the disruptive changes facing higher education, and an overview of the possible future or futures) presents an arc of failure, crisis, and renewal.

The disappointment that Seligno asserts is understandable and justified. Higher education does move slowly and it fails many students. Costs are rising and pricing too many students out of an affordable education. Worse still, student debt is a national problem. These are issues that are unacceptable and unsustainable.  The value gap that he and many others identify is between the high cost of education and the shrinking and poorly compensated job market for college graduates.

The five critical factors that Seligman believes will reshape higher education are rising institutional debt, shrinking support from government, a decrease in the numbers of students who can afford to pay for their education (in particular what admissions officers call the “full-pays” – students who do not need financial aid), better educational alternatives through certificates and specialized low-cost programs, and the increasing gap between the value that a public places in higher education and its eventual outcome, a well-compensated and meaningful career. These are correct with an important caveat when it comes to the issue of value.

Assertions about the value of a college education require a shared understanding of particular kinds of institutions offering particular sorts of students certain types of education. There is widespread belief in the value of elite institutions, engineering programs, and medical schools, for example. Big changes in higher education will most likely bypass these institutions and programs. For the less success, less respected, and less resourced institutions, however, more significant change seems likely. What Seligman does not fully appreciate is the power of countervailing forces. The market demands educated and credentialed potential employees, and the best way for institutions to pursue this is through accredited programs and following best practices. This makes sense but limits innovation. 

On these topics and in describing some of the broad trends that have recently shaped higher education, Seligno is on firm ground. He understands the nefarious institutional effects of enrollment-driven priorities and how they can work their way through a college’s culture and practice. Seligno’s account of how this student-as-customer business model distorts higher education’s values and actions is insightful and damning. Colleges and students chase climbing walls and lazy rivers, but at what cost? The higher education bubble reminds one of the housing bubble – but the college bubble has not popped. Importantly, complaints could be substantially mitigated were colleges better able to control tuition, costs, and expectations. Seligno’s accounting of higher education’s failings falls short because it does not focus enough on economics.

Seligman offers no data to confirm that educational quality is worsening. In fact, many of the success stories outlined in the book’s final section seem to show that for many institutions and their students, academic quality is improving. Surprisingly, he also does not give much thought to the isomorphic pressures that constrain institutions from innovating. He gives little attention to accreditation, for example, or the ways that broad financial and cultural forces shape large-scale educational policy. The role of college athletics is ignored, yet college athletics has a powerful impact on higher education.

The author is correct that many institutions resist alternative disrupters. Some of this may be inherent academic conservatism and monopolistic arrogance. However, many colleges and programs embrace innovation. In fact, it is possible to imagine a re-ordering of Seligman’s book, focusing on the successes Seligman calls “Future Forward.” Such a volume would paint a very different picture of a large economic and institutional sector wrestling with how best to complete its mission in a challenging environment – and would give many of us hope.

Unfortunately, College Un(Bound) does not develop its arguments consistently and thoroughly enough to justify its sweeping assertions. A thread of emotional exasperation is woven through the book, borne, I imagine, from Seligman’s first-hand experience with academia’s ridiculousness. If you look for inefficiencies, particularly in higher education, one will find them.

David Potash

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