College (Un)Bound Review: Or, Why I’m Not Quitting Grad School

College (Un)Bound by Jeffrey J. Selingo is a respected journalist’s look at the state of higher education, including how it arrived at its current situation, innovative developments, and strategies for the future. Selingo nicknames the period from 1999 to 2009 as “the Lost Decade” for higher education. As a new professional in the field of higher education, Selingo’s words were alternately depressing and encouraging; but always provocative.

Two major themes running through the book are the cost of education and technology. On the topic of cost, Selingo describes the factors that have led to the ever-increasing price of higher education and ballooning student loan debt. Higher education is one of a few industries, along with fine arts, that does not have much wiggle room when it comes to cutting costs. It is difficult to make education more efficient by mass production or machinery, just as it is difficult for a ballet company to cut costs by replacing ballerinas with robots. The costs of instruction remain mostly the same over time, while other costs—buildings, utilities, insurance, amenities and services, technology—increase the overall cost of college. The college raises tuition accordingly, but then offers massive discount rates to attract students. Students and their families, meanwhile, are able to take out loans to cover the rest of the cost. A college education is seen as essential in the job market.

Colleges serve as the gatekeepers of credentials—whether the credential is a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree, or certificate. Job-seekers in today’s world are encouraged to have a degree on their resume and are hard-pressed to find a job without some sort of credential. This has led to higher education becoming a necessary step on the ladder to a middle class job. Add to this the cultural norm of going to college after high school and the availability of student loans paired with discount rates on tuition. Higher education appears affordable to students on the front end, and with a degree as the ticket to the workforce, more and more students are starting college. However, graduation is just one possible outcome of the college experience. Many students don’t finish a degree, while many more graduate with huge amounts of debt.

With colleges reaching the boundaries of tuition discounts, the states unable to put much money toward public institutions, and students and families increasingly resistant to the large amount of debt, other options are starting to emerge. Selingo notes a variety of new technologies and companies that are finding ways to offer education for free or very cheap. Not all of these options result in credits that could transfer into a credential, but some do. Selingo names these “unbundled” options, comparing them to the choose-your-own-amenities service offered by airlines. As students become more likely to transfer institutions, even multiple times, they can pick and choose what classes they want at particular colleges.

Beyond the typical transfer credits, MOOCs have gained a lot of attention in the media. While MOOCs are not yet able to give credit that transfers to an institution, it is quite possible that in the future students will be able to take a MOOC and count it toward their credential in some form. Hybrid and online courses are also popping up at more brick-and-mortar colleges, so that students living on campus might be taking some classes in a classroom and others online, in their dorm. With educational technology improving, these classes will become better quality. Flipping the classroom, or using out-of-class time to watch a video lecture while using in-class-time for problem-solving homework and discussion, will also be useful in improving hybrid courses.

After reading about these changes in cost and technology that will likely shift the paradigms of higher education in the coming years, I felt like many students probably feel. I’ve done all this work, and have all this debt, and there’s not a job at the end of it?! If higher education is unaffordable and the future is in learning through technology, I may have made a poor choice in going to graduate school for higher education. However, I believe there is still a (big) place for traditional, face-to-face, brick-and-mortar higher education. Selingo admits this as well, particularly in regards to traditionally-aged college students who need the college experience to help them mature as well as to learn. Cutting edge technologies are just that; cutting edge. Higher education will be slow to respond, so even though many innovative options are emerging, the conventional campus will persist. And it will persist not only out of tradition or stubbornness, but because it offers a version of higher education that students will still desire and benefit from.

I personally am excited about a future career in higher ed, working with students who are coming to college at such a transformative time in their lives. The potential impact of a traditional college experience on students can go much beyond a diploma and debt. Rather, students who seek it will find college to be a time of learning, growing pains, and equipping for the future.