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.



lead zeppelin

image credit: commons

You said I was grounded like a lead zeppelin, a lead balloon. This was funny, because nearby, the red hot air balloon was taking people for “rides,” letting them bounce gently on the ground but never taking to the sky. Funny, but we weren’t laughing.


image credit: commons

Across the darkening lawn of the campus, the carnival was loud and whimsical, bluegrass music drifting over on the breezes along with scents of buttery popcorn. We had wandered away from the noise, the activity, the people, for a more serious and weighty conversation than the festive atmosphere allowed for. Now I was crying, the deep and heavy tears of Depression that would not lift. We sat; I cried; you simply were, with me, like Job’s friends sitting shiva. There were no words for this.

I felt like the “dead man” that marked the sidewalk nearby, more symbols of the light-hearted college traditions continuing on around me. And I felt stuck, buried deep, weighted down beneath the waves of random, reasonless sorrow.

We couldn’t get up from our dark corner of the grass, not yet, even though night was coming on. I was wiping tears and snot on my shirt for lack of a better remedy, looking like a hot mess and unwilling to face the crowds with such a downcast face.

My tears have been my food
    day and night…

My heart is breaking
    as I remember how it used to be:
I walked among the crowds of worshipers,
    leading a great procession to the house of God,
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng!

My soul is downcast within me…
Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.

Psalm 42, excerpts from NIV and NLT

Finally the wells of my tears seemed to have run dry, and you suggested we bake cookies and color pictures to comfort the Sad. I picked myself up off the ground, body heavy, still reluctant to risk human interaction. But we stood and walked the short distance back to my apartment, stumbling into the light past the cozy and holy prayer chapel. Finding a box mix, we trooped over to your dorm, the one that felt friendly, and baked cookies in the lounge while various friends of yours stopped over to see what we were doing. You brought coloring materials from your room and as the cookies baked, we doodled in bright colors, tracing song lyrics onto the page, words of hope not yet realized:

The enemy has been defeated
And death couldn’t hold You down
We’re gonna lift our voice in victory
We’re gonna make Your praises loud

Shout unto God with a voice of triumph
Shout unto God with a voice of praise
Shout unto God with a voice of triumph
We lift Your name up
We lift Your name up

“Shout Unto God” by Hillsong United

I think you walked me back home that night, and I slipped into my apartment hoping not to be seen by my roommates’ boyfriends. You gave me the picture you drew, with my name on it, and I hung it with mine above my bed. I fell asleep looking at the colors, remembering the promises, wishing and willing the hope to be true.

It’s been five years since then, but when I think of the support I had during Depression, that night is one of the first to come to mind. You sat with me in the incurably sad silence, a show of solidarity when many would give up. But just as importantly, you stood with me and gently prompted me back towards the land of the living, baby steps of crayons and cookies. You helped me stand on unsteady legs and didn’t leave me to fend for myself just because the worst was over. You stood with me through the long darkness and patchy light, and for that I am so incredibly grateful.

for Jess

linking up with SheLoves Magazine for their July theme of Stand