The Washington Post

Selingo’s new book dissects the ‘decay’ of modern-day higher education

Insiders know higher education is in upheaval, with free online classes proliferating, tuition surging and public universities struggling. Perhaps worst of all, too many students leave school with high debt and no degrees.

Outsiders — namely, students and parents — wonder what is going on.

Jeffrey J. Selingo, a veteran D.C. journalist, aims to make sense of all this in “College (Un)Bound” (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, 238 pp.), which goes on sale Tuesday.

Editor-at-large of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Selingo, 40, dissects what he calls “a risk-averse, self-satisfied industry,” declaring, “American higher education is broken.” Among many signs of decay, he writes, are:

●The endless chase for prestige and rankings

Jeffrey J. Selingo, author of “College (Un)Bound.” (Jay Premack Photography)

●The laxity of academic standards in classrooms that “have become one giant game of favor exchanges between students, professors and administrators”

●The resort-like marketing of college campuses, with new climbing walls, deluxe dorms and other amenities that have little to do with teaching and learning but lots to do with tours for prospective students. Admissions officers call these tours the “million-dollar walk.”

Selingo holds up as admirable (and rare) a college president, Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University, who gently rejects a mother’s request to waive a $500 deposit fee for an admitted student. LeBlanc said that he worried the family might be at risk of taking on too much debt, and that the student might be better off starting at a community college and transferring to the private university.

“You won’t find many college presidents like LeBlanc who would recommend that you not attend their school,” Selingo writes.

The book also offers a primer to innovations transforming colleges as they scramble to adapt to a new market after the 2008 financial crisis. Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are just one. Others include initiatives to grant credit for “competency” in skills rather than time spent in class; digital systems to help match students to the right colleges and guide them to the most efficient course of study to obtain a degree; and hybrid learning environments at schools such as the University of Central Florida, where students move seamlessly back and forth between online and in-person class work.

Backlash is inevitable.

“In many ways, higher education is like any industry that has produced its product a particular way for a long time and is suspicious of anything new,” Selingo writes. “This cynicism runs even deeper on college campuses because everyone is an expert in something.”

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.

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