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‘College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students’

by Jeffrey J. Selingo

New Harvest, 234 pp., $26

American higher education, long considered the best in the world, is being pulled in so many different directions that it’s coming undone — and it’s about time.

That is the premise of Jeffrey Selingo’s compelling new book, a survey course on the social, economic, technological and demographic forces reshaping higher ed. It should be required reading for anyone planning to go to college, or send their kids there.

Selingo, editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, refreshingly keeps his focus off the Harvards and Yales of the academic world. Rather, he concentrates on the middle-tier state universities, off-brand private institutions and local community colleges that actually educate most of the 20 million Americans currently pursuing postsecondary education.

He starts off with a summation of the woes afflicting those schools: soaring tuition costs, low graduation rates, dwindling state aid, grade inflation and heavier and heavier debt loads — not just those borne by students but by more and more colleges themselves.

While none of this is new, by laying out all the problems alongside one another Selingo convincingly makes the case that the existing system is unsustainable.

He then discusses the many ways that information technology is reshaping what constitutes a college education. This includes such well-documented phenomena as massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and distance-learning programs such as those offered by Western Governors University, based in Utah.

In essence, technology is doing to higher ed what it’s already done to the telecommunications, entertainment and media industries: “unbundling” the various services that used to be covered by a single set fee.

Why pay big bucks to take introductory economics with the pedantic dud or harried grad student at Wossamotta U when you could learn the same material at a more affordable community college — or online from an Ivy League economist? Why go to vast lecture classes at all, when it’s been shown that viewing (and if necessary, reviewing) videos of the same lectures is a more effective learning tool?

Selingo cites examples of schools using technology to help students pick lab partners, courses and even majors. Some states make data available on the graduation rates at different schools and the earning potential of various majors.

Entrepreneurs have developed software to match students with employers or steer them toward colleges that fit their educational and financial needs (though Selingo himself, citing recent research, advises students to attend the most selective school they can get into).

Selingo visited nearly two dozen campuses in the course of his research, and his familiarity with higher-ed trends clearly shows (though in places the book relies heavily on material previously published in The Chronicle of Higher Education).

But he’s more apt to describe than to judge; I wish he’d applied the same critical spirit of the book’s early chapters to his array of edupreneurs and visionaries.

I also kept hoping Selingo would talk more about the institutional consequences of the trends he’s identified. Will there be even fewer positions for tenured, full-time faculty? Will there be a wave of closures or consolidations among colleges and universities? Or will they sort themselves into different “pure plays,” with some focused almost entirely on teaching undergrads and others on pursuing advanced research?

Still, Selingo’s book is vital reading — especially before you, or your child, mails in that enrollment agreement. You may not be getting the kind of college education you think you are.