What will be the return on a $50, $100, $200,000 investment in an undergraduate college degree? That is the question parents and students are increasingly facing. Is this worth taking on student loan debt that could exceed $100,000? And how does one evaluate the education on offer beyond the attractive brochures and tours of campus?
These are questions Jeffrey Selingo addresses. As a writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education he is well-positioned to help parents and students to understand the landscape of higher education.
Selingo begins by describing the vigorous competition among institutions to provide what is perceived as the gateway credential to an upwardly mobile economic life, With that, he describes the efforts of colleges to woo students with everything from luxury dorms to climbing walls. He also explores the growing crisis of student loan debt (“the trillion-dollar problem”) as well as the shaky balance sheets of some colleges. Desperate for “full tuition paying” students, universities are increasingly marketing themselves to affluent or government-supported internationals from other countries.
This leads to a discussion of forces that are disrupting and changing the higher ed landscape. Much of this focuses on the game-changing advent of online technology and how this is changing the student learning experience and how people put a degree together. “Nimble” institutions will address these issues and provide ways for undergraduates to combine physical classroom experience, online resources and course credits from other institutions into a degree.
The third part of his book focuses on the future. Selingo starts with the issues of how college choices are made and the need to ask harder questions about graduation rates, particularly for students in one’s economic bracket. He contends that reputation does matter, not only in return on investment but also, in many cases, in retention and graduation rates. He also argues that it is important to look at curriculum, that developing critical thinking skills matters more than majors and that collaborative work experiences, study abroad, and capstone projects position students not only for their first jobs but subsequent ones.
The book concludes with a collection of vignettes of creative programs and a checklist for parents and students as they engage the college search process.
It seems to me that Selingo’s book is very helpful reading for students and parents as they enter the college search. It is also important in naming some of the elephants in the room in higher education discussions. He identifies questions and resources that help parents go into the college search with eyes wide open.
What I find less helpful is the acceptance of the value of college primarily or almost exclusively in terms of career preparation. I think this is the big concern of most parents and students but it represents a shift in thinking about the mission of higher education that goes unacknowledged. Selingo certainly describes instances of students finding a “calling” through their university experiences but it is disturbing to find one more instance of an approach to college education that largely portrays both colleges and the students who go through them as cogs in our economic machinery. It seems to me that this is neither what colleges nor people exist for.