On Political Books

May/ June 2013 Revolution for Thee, Not Me

Online learning will transform the nature of college for everybody—except the affluent.

By Daniel Luzer

College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students
by Jeffrey J. Selingo
New Harvest, 256 pp.

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.

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.

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


  • Jennifer on May 07, 2013 4:37 PM:

    Thanks so much for providing this perspective. I come from a working class background and would never have attended college were it not for the state systems. I got a fantastic education in history that has enriched my life immeasurably.

    We must protect these institutions that are central to a more equal and just society, and realize that the money to fund them is there--it's the political will to sustain them that's lacking.

  • Isernia on May 10, 2013 7:38 PM:

    Social mobility is also a factor to consider in what kind of a college one attends.
    My parents were immigrants, illiterate and unschooled and yet their four children did very well in high school and public colleges. Their grandchildren were smart enough to attend Ivy League colleges, so in just three generations our family went from working class to upper middle class. That American Dream no longer exists in the U.S. today, alas.
    These internet communication courses which strive practical job skills will only further separate the haves and the have nots. Sadly, the cultural gap is added to the educational gap articulates the decreasing mobility in our American society.

  • Demosthenes on May 30, 2013 12:32 PM:

    Ify you can afford it, private schools are nuch better; going to state universities really is a lousy deal nowadays. I attended the U of Illinois (Urbana) in the early 80s. Most classes were relatively small, and taught by full professors. It really was a terrific experience and bargain-priced to boot. A year ago, I took my son (a high school senior) to visit. The budget crisis has ruined undergraduate education. According to our tour guide (who are students that are supposed to say good stuff about the school), the average class size has ballooned to 140, and students rarely interact with professors. Moreover, the cost is astonishingly high: approximately $30,000 (including room and board). My son hated the school, and refused to apply to any state universities. Instead, he applied to smaller private schools. He will attend a medium-sized "elite" private university, with average class sizes in the low 20s, and with full professors teaching all classes. Oh, and did I mention that private schools are very generous with merit and financial aid?

  • Douglas6 on May 31, 2013 3:03 AM:

    (1) Would you rather listen to a lecture on medieval European history from one of the world's experts or from the pedestrian Ph.D. at your local university? MOOCs give everyone the chance to learn from the best.
    (2) We are moving towards the Khan model - students will listen to lectures from the masters and read books on their own time, and in class they will do problems and have discussions with teachers. The real question is who those in-class teachers will be. At most schools, they will not be researchers or faux-researchers, although they might have Ph.Ds.

  • Ivesian on July 30, 2013 11:30 AM:

    For years now, universities have "unbundled" the faculty career. Instead of paying a full-time wage for teaching, advising students, administration, and research, universities hire as many adjuncts as possible, and pay them a la carte only for the "teaching" portion. In order to make a living, these adjunct faculty must either 1) work at multiple institutions, or 2) develop non-academic careers simultaneously.

    So it's not surprising that incoming students want to do the same thing, taking courses from multiple sources and forgoing university perks that they are not using.