- - Sunday, May 19, 2013


By Jeffrey Selingo
New Harvest, $26, 256 pages

It’s not hard to see that the $490 billion higher-education industry is failing America. One study showed that only 45 percent of students demonstrate any cognitive gains by the middle of their sophomore year. Only about 50 percent of students enrolling in a four-year college graduate within six years. Yet more students are enrolled than ever: Tech financier Peter Thiel has referred to it as “the default activity” for high school graduates. Costs have surged by more than 1,100 percent since 1978. Whether you view the deficiencies from an intellectual or economic angle, it’s sure to ruffle your tweed.

Jeffrey Selingo, an editor-at-large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, has written a superb, detailed account of these and other maladies plaguing the industry. Higher education, as he sees it, is “beset by hubris, opposition to change, and resistance to accountability.” But Mr. Selingo has written a book that is not so much a recapitulation of how we got here, but rather looks forward to the future of postsecondary learning. It is good news that Mr. Selingo is attuned to and accepting of the power of new ideas such as big data and digital learning to help shape it.

Let’s begin with the problem of students making poor decisions on where to go to school and what to study. Mr. Selingo nails it: “Right now, higher education benefits from confusion in the market, because schools can hide behind national averages on salaries, and would-be students are more apt to trust a school’s marketing materials in the absence of better information.”

As has happened with Internet commerce (Facebook ads), sports (think “Moneyball”) and politics (Obama 2012), organizations have figured out new ways to utilize data to create value for themselves and clients. The same push to use data to match students to their best major or school is already percolating in higher ed. Two states, Arkansas and Tennessee, have already created databases to help students figure out which degrees will have the most value after graduating. The practical effect of all this, writes Mr. Selingo, is that “the more specific the tools become, the more families might think twice about sending Suzie to State U to major in philosophy.” Of course, there is a downside to making decisions based on statistical likelihoods alone: “Students who pick their major based solely on post-school salaries will in all likelihood, without a passion to motivate them, struggle in both school and career.”

The true $490 billion question in higher ed right now is whether — and how — a massive expansion of technology will shape the business (and, as Mr. Selingo makes clear, nearly every college is concerned with making money). In this regard, John Hennessy, the president of Stanford University, has predicted that a “tsunami” is coming. Mr. Selingo stops short of that prediction, realizing that while technology has tremendous value to deliver education that is cheaper and more tailored to each student’s learning ability, he still doesn’t think that Clay Christensen-style disruptive innovation will rule the day completely: “I don’t believe that scores of colleges will simply disappear in the future and be replaced by online imitations.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Selingo acknowledges that the outrageous cost of college today is going to force changes in the higher-ed business model. Parents who cannot or will not now pay full price for a private-school product has pushed more students into state university systems. With state revenues down and enrollment up, states are having a hard time providing access to higher ed. Thus, Mr. Selingo advocates that state dollars be preserved for higher ed. For that to happen, technology, and its attendant lower costs, must be part of the equation.

But there is a downside: ” … the rush to embrace technology as a solution to every problem has created tension on campuses over whether the critical role higher education plays in preparing the whole person to be a productive citizen in a democratic society is at risk.” This is an important point — education is not in its essence about job training. It is about refining the soul and the mind. For the whole higher-education establishment go whole-hog on online learning would surely sacrifice, in some ways, the joys of the interpersonal learning process. But holding onto such sentimentality is not absolutely worth what is to be gained by embracing new ideas rooted in technology; namely, “a more efficient system that better matches students and institutions and gets more students emerging on the other end with an actual degree.” Hear, hear.

David Wilezol is the co-author, with William Bennett, of “Is College Worth It?” (Thomas Nelson, 2013).

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