American universities are the envy of the world, but a few hundred very prestigious schools hide the fact that most colleges perform no ground-breaking research, offer mostly large and impersonal lecture classes, and provide students with few extras. Almost half of students—42 percent—who start a bachelor’s degree drop out of college. Student loan debt is crippling, surpassing $1 trillion in 2012. The average student borrower leaves school $27,000 in the red. Adding insult to injury, almost half of all college students make little or no learning gains in their first two years of college, according to a 2010 book by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift.

College (Un)bound:
The Future of Higher Education
and What It Means for Students

by Jeffrey J. Selingo
New Harvest, 256 pp.

Nearly 80 percent of American college students attend state colleges and universities, but per student state support for state colleges and universities has plummeted. In 1987 tuition accounted for about a quarter of college revenue. Today’s students pay just over half of all operating funds for state colleges and universities through tuition. Annual state funding per enrolled student dropped from $10,195 in 2002 to $5,900 in 2012.

It was not always thus: From the 1950s through the ’70s, states generously funded public higher education. During the ’80s and ’90s, states were anxious to avoid tax hikes but were forced to devote more and more public money to fund state programs, particularly employee pensions and Medicaid. Colleges also cost more to run. Every year, despite changes in public funding, American institutions of higher learning spent more on science labs, administrative staff and student services, and employee and student health care. One of the solutions to these fiscal problems was to raise tuition at public colleges.

And then the spending problem got worse. Jeffrey J. Selingo, editor at large for the Chronicle for Higher Education, calls the early 2000s the “lost decade” of college financing in his new book College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students. At least part of the reason college got more expensive is that Americans were willing to pay more in tuition; parents rich from equity on their overvalued houses demanded more and more amenities at their children’s universities. As a result, Selingo writes, “college leaders spent the last decade chasing high achieving students, showering them with scholarships to snatch them from competitors, and going deep into debt to build lavish residence halls, [and] recreational facilities.” Colleges were getting less money from public sources but spending more, convinced that the gravy train would continue forever. Within months of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2008, however, college endowments lost billions. This was the beginning of the financial crisis that became the Great Recession—and the end of the university of endless excess.

Selingo argues that financial problems leave universities ripe for disruption, with Americans going elsewhere for their college education and college becoming “unbound” as students need no longer be, as he says, “tethered to one campus.” More than six million students are currently enrolled in online courses. There are now massive open online courses (MOOCs), in which universities and technology companies partner to design courses for thousands of students. Selingo also discusses how two colleges, the traditional Southern New Hampshire University and the newly developed Western Governors University (see John Gravois, “The College For-profits Should Fear,” Washington Monthly, September/October 2011), are experimenting with competency-based online associate’s degree programs, in which students are credited as soon as they show mastery of a subject rather than having to spend a set number of hours in class. Selingo agrees with Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen’s assertion that “higher education can respond to the forces of disruptive innovation” (online colleges, hybrid online/in person courses, vocational skills offered directly by professional organizations, YouTube videos in specific academic subjects, and so on) and use technology to “find innovative, less costly ways of performing their uniquely valuable functions.”

For a book about complicated policy and economic trends, this one is very well told (and the subject should be familiar to readers of this magazine). Selingo moves seamlessly from legal and regulatory decisions to the real experiences of students. Each chapter begins with an anecdote to illustrate the trend he addresses. His section on student debt begins with the story of a woman who attended a private college and paid for it largely with loans; she now works three part-time jobs to make payments on $120,000 in debt. A chapter on alternative models for higher education begins with the story of a fifty-seven-year-old security guard earning a degree in political science using a program called StraighterLine, which provides college credits for only $99 a month (see Kevin Carey, “College for $99 a Month,” Washington Monthly, September/October 2009).

Selingo doesn’t believe that MOOCs and StraighterLine will themselves necessarily be the colleges of the future; rather, the proliferation of such initiatives, coupled with the withdrawal of public support for traditional colleges, suggests that alternative delivery methods will simply direct higher education in the foreseeable future. Employers might like this sort of thing, Selingo speculates, because unbound course credit could be earned like a kind of badge, indicating that a potential employee has mastered a certain skill or is qualified to perform a specific task. Selingo writes that technology will give “students more options to take classes outside of their home institution, accelerating the pace to completing a degree, or serving as a supplement to a face-to-face course.”

Well, that’s one way to look at it. But if we’re expanding access to college through alternative, technology-based systems, is this really expanding access to college or providing a different experience entirely? Perhaps the biggest flaw of this book is that while Selingo offers a very good take on what declining state funding and innovative technology could mean for both colleges and students, he fails to consider what this “revolution” in higher education might mean for American society as a whole.

“The college of the future will certainly be different than the one of today,” he explains, “but robots will not replace professors in the classroom anytime soon. Harvard will remain Harvard.” He estimates that 500 or so of America’s 4,000 colleges have large enough endowments to remain unchanged by this revolution. But isn’t that a problem? If Princeton and Williams will be unaffected by these trends, what’s really going on here?

It seems that the future won’t unbind higher education for everyone—just for the working and middle classes. That’s because rich people will always be able to afford traditional colleges. America’s affluent parents recognize that the actual point of college is only partially about earning four credits in microeconomics and more about drinking with your roommate and talking about philosophy until four a.m., working together with classmates on problem sets in the library, negotiating a new social scene, and falling in love. College students make friends, cultivate interests, and develop connections through which they eventually get jobs. Those experiences cannot be replicated through badges.

But these experiences may just be upper-class luxuries. A dichotomy already exists between America’s well-funded and prestigious colleges and the rest of them. The experience the average student has at Morrisville State College, for instance, is vastly different from the experience of a student at Columbia or Swarthmore. This is not, of course, a new phenomenon. Prior to World War II, learning beyond high school was unbound too. Education and training for most people didn’t take place on a traditional college campus: for most of the nineteenth century, a university education was essentially restricted to the American rich; the rest of the country received post-secondary training in the form of trade schools and apprenticeships. Under the new system it appears we would be returning to this two-tiered system: traditional college for the moneyed, and alternative training for everyone else.

This shift may be inevitable given the relentless cost pressures facing traditional colleges and universities, but whether it proves to be a healthy change for American society remains to be seen. Under the rosy scenario described by education futurists like Selingo, entrepreneurs will develop high-quality technology that engages and challenges students and allows more of them to obtain work-ready degrees and credentials quickly and cheaply. But there is a darker scenario in which the less prestigious schools that make up half to three-quarters of four-year colleges either disappear altogether or are transformed into something very different. The students who would have gone to these schools and lack the income, preparedness, or smarts to get into the remaining higher-prestige institutions will be forced to take the equivalent of their freshman and sophomore years online. They may well find the format lonely and difficult, and then conclude that college isn’t really for them—never having experienced the real thing.

Given the current 90 percent dropout rate in most MOOCs, an 8-point gap in completion rates between traditional and online courses offered by community colleges, the 6.5 percent graduation rate even at the respected Western Governors University, and the ambiguity of many other higher education reform ideas, there’s good reason to think that an unbound future might not be so great.

The best American innovations in education were the Land-Grant College Act of 1862, which helped create a system of public universities, and the GI Bill of 1944, which ensured that an entire generation had the money to attend college. This widespread access to the college experience enabled people from working-class backgrounds to advance en masse into professional jobs that required reasoning and logic and extensive knowledge of the world. The question is whether or not we will continue this trend or simply give up and say that a few online classes and specialized training are good enough for the majority of Americans.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer