Jeff Selingo on Innovation

Most college leaders realize that today’s tough marketplace conditions for higher education are not simply a temporary inconvenience, but rather that economic, demographic, and technological forces will permanently disrupt the operating model of traditional colleges and universities.

Journalist Jeffrey Selingo, editor-at-large at The Chronicle of Higher Education, immersed himself in the study of these disruptions while writing his new book, College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students. The future he envisions will feature unbundled degrees, fluid timelines, and adaptive learning, among other innovations.

Selingo frequently speaks before national higher education groups and appears regularly on regional and national radio and television programs on NPR, PBS, ABC, MSNBC, and CBS. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Huffington Post. His work has been honored with awards from the Education Writers Association, Society of Professional Journalists, and the Associated Press, and he was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.

Selingo earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ithaca College (New York) and a master’s degree in government from The Johns Hopkins University (Maryland).

Jeff, what prompted you to write your book about the future of higher education?

I’ve been covering higher education for 16 years, and during that time I saw the industry change drastically—but not as much as in the last four years since the onset of the Great Recession. Since 2009 I’ve seen both traditional universities struggling for various reasons (mostly related to finances) and new players and entrepreneurs beginning to enter the space in increasing ways, trying to disrupt it very much like they did the newspaper industry, the publishing industry, and the music industry. And so I was curious, especially since I have two young kids, about whether the college experience as we’ve known it for generations was really going to change.

At the beginning of your book, you refer to the period from 1999 to 2009 as the “Lost Decade” for the higher education sector. What put it on the wrong track during that time?

I think in some ways higher education is like those other industries I just mentioned. Whether it was music or publishing or newspapers, they all seemed to enjoy a period of great success right before change kind of enveloped them overnight. It almost lulls them into sleeping, in other words. You kind of enjoy the excesses of the period, and then suddenly you’re not really paying attention to what’s going on around you. And that’s my thesis on what happened to higher education the last 10 years. Because of essentially demographics and changes in the economy, there was huge demand for higher education. So student enrollments went way up, and because demand was so high and supply was continuing to be somewhat limited, colleges could do almost whatever they wanted—including raising tuition, taking on more debt, and boosting demand even more by adding academic programs. But for the most part, they didn’t really have to change the core of what they were doing, because they were enjoying so much success.

Obviously, that success ended in September of 2008 when the housing market crashed. But until then, basically higher education just kept adding, adding, adding, instead of subtracting. And so this period of the Lost Decade, in my opinion, is marked by additional academic programs, more students, more degrees, more tuition, and more debt both for students and for institutions. We hear so much about student debt, but the amount of institutional debt nearly doubled in the period between 1999 to 2009. And most of that went to student amenities, whether it was nicer dorms or climbing walls or lazy rivers or you name it.

And there’s nothing wrong with debt; we all have debt. But that assumes that the financial model of higher education is going to remain the same forever, and right now we’re seeing it won’t. And, in fact, nearly 75 percent of institutions’ net tuition revenue, the cash on hand to pay the bills, is either flat or falling.

What indicates to you that the disruptions facing higher education will place it on a permanently different track? 

Basically, right now we’re seeing kind of a perfect storm of changes hitting higher education. One of them is that there’s this sea of red ink because colleges are highly leveraged right now, especially the ones that are most in need of students. In a lot of the public sectors, states are getting out of the business of higher education in a big way. The number of students who can afford to pay close to full price or the full price are far and few between, and then everyone’s after them.

And we’re seeing, in so many different places now, new players enter the scene—everybody from the MOOCs [massive open online courses] to Western Governor’s University to the Khan Academy—and while the alternatives aren’t proven, all of them are getting better about the technology.

And then finally there is what I talked about at last year’s Summer Seminar [sponsored by The Lawlor Group and Hardwick-Day], which is this value gap of higher education, in that while college presidents think what they offer in the traditional residential undergraduate college is highly valued and is well worth the price, the public opinion is moving in the opposite direction. There’s still a belief that college is worth it—if you look at all the surveys and statistics, they show people think that a college degree is absolutely necessary. What’s becoming more true now, though, is that parents and students are becoming more savvy consumers when it comes to picking colleges, and they’re trying to figure out where the best value is for what they’re spending. And this idea that they’re going to be willing to go into debt or willing to spend any money that they have to go to any college, in my belief, is a relic of the last decade. That idea is not going to be as true in the next decade.

What developments have allowed them to become more savvy consumers?

Well, there are many new tools on the horizon that allow them to consider institutions on the so-called return on investment. But more so, there are these new players I have talked about. And this is going to be a slow development. It won’t happen overnight, but I see the future of the higher education system not being replaced by one thing. And in fact, I don’t see the traditional undergraduate campus being replaced. But I see the future being an ecosystem of various players and being—instead of a one-size-fits-all system like we have today—much more of a buffet of options for students.

And in fact, a large section of your book delves into the specifics of what you believe the future will look like for higher education. Could you tell us more about that?

There are a lot of commentators now who think that thousands of colleges are going to go out of business. I just don’t believe that. I think that colleges are like cities, as I was reminded so much throughout the reporting of my book. They tend to evolve with the time. And so I don’t think that the typical undergraduate residential experience is going to go away. I do think, though, that the majority of institutions in the country will change.

Now how will they change? I think it’s going to become more personalized, because of the ability of institutions to personalize the education for individual students through adaptive learning technology. I think data has the potential to really transform higher education. I mean, it already has transformed the consumer sector. Just think about all the data points that everybody from Amazon to Netflix to your local supermarket have been collecting on people for a decade or two, and as much as they have the ability to personalize the experience for you in a way that’s very different from the consumer next to you in line. Just think about education—in some ways, the most personalized of all that we experience in a day; no two learners really look alike. And adaptive learning has the ability to personalize it down to the individual student because of the amount of data that we’re collecting on how students learn—and not only on how students learn, but how successful students get through college. So data analytics to me affect not only what happens in the classroom, but also what happens outside of the classroom. It helps students pick their classes based on how other students like them performed the years before. It helps them pick majors that they might succeed in, again based on the experiences students who are like them have had. And then, most important, it helps them in their classes, in terms of this idea that the learning is personalized to them.

I also think that there will be a lot more student movement through the system; in other words, students won’t necessarily come in their freshman year and stay on the campus for four years, both because of the alternatives that are improving and because of experiences that give students hands-on learning, whether it’s on an internship or co-op or study abroad. I think we’re going to see a lot more of the students “swirl” through college and that students will become less brand loyal to colleges in the future. In other words, they might start at a community college, they might move to a four-year institution, they might take a MOOC, they might go abroad, they might do a co-op, they might do an internship. They’re going to move around a lot more, and I think those institutions that are going to succeed in the future are the ones that will help those students navigate that problem, navigate that map.

And then finally, I don’t see online education necessarily wiping out face-to-face classes. I see much more of a hybrid approach. We’re already seeing this on many campuses, where students kind of toggle between a face-to-face experience and an online experience.

The way credentialing works, it’s not yet feasible to include, for example, a MOOC in one’s official degree plan. What will change so that students can more freely transfer such course credits in the future? 

We’ve already seen the credentialing system go through some changes with the rise of competency-based degrees, which are now going to be offered by three traditional universities this year—Wisconsin, Northern Arizona, and Southern New Hampshire. This is the idea that we can measure student learning by what they know rather than how much time they spend in the seat. I think there’s a lot of pressure now, by students and families and lawmakers, that credits and experiences transfer more easily between institutions. I think this is going to be something that’s going to happen over time as institutions are no longer going to be able to have the corner on the credit and credential market. And as more players enter this system, as more students demand that they move more easily through the system, I think some institutions (and probably the last ones would be the most elite) that are going to need students to fill seats are going to be forced to start being more open to accepting credits and experiences from other places.

Once that happens, students’ timelines will also be more fluid. If a student can go easily through a system that measures their learning based on seat time and on competencies, the idea of the academic calendar as starting in September and ending in May and having 15- or 16-week semesters to me is kind of thrown out the window. We’re already seeing institutions like Arizona State experimenting with mini-semesters, where students can move between a seven-and-a-half-week semester and a 15-week semester and have a lot more flexibility to have experiences outside the classroom, whether that’s study abroad or internships or co-ops. Really, to me the fluid timeline will allow much more flexibility on the part of the student to finish their degree early or to mix and match experiences.

Is there anything about the way financial aid is awarded today that is an obstacle to all of this change on the way?

I think most of it is because financial aid right now is given out on how much time students spend in the seat, based on the credit hour. I think that the system needs to become much more flexible, and it needs to recognize more the fact that students pursue many different careers throughout their lifetime and thus earn varying paychecks. So I like this idea that we could potentially move much more toward a system where loans are paid back as a percentage of what you make, rather than saddling a generation of students with massive debt as we are now.

I do worry that we already have a fairly large gap in American higher education between the haves and the have-nots, and I don’t think we should be creating a two-tiered system where the high-valued, face-to-face interaction only happens for those who can afford it. The fact of the matter is we already have this gap in achievement, and if we continue to do things the way we are, that gap is only going to grow because the trends all point to that direction. And so we have to come up with a system that is much more flexible, that is much less expensive, and that has much higher success rates. Otherwise, we’re already headed toward a future—actually, we are in that present already—where we have a two-tier system.

As we reach the point where students can choose from many more paths toward a degree, what will be some of the challenges particular to the undergraduate residential liberal arts colleges?

Well, I think the challenge for them is trying to prove their value of what’s so great about a small residential liberal arts college, and to me there’s so much of a focus on majors these days. In the last decade, the number of academic programs at American colleges and universities increased by more than 20 percent, with new majors in everything from sustainability to entrepreneurship to sports management. But to me—and I actually wrote a piece for The Choice Blog in The New York Times on this topic—majors matter a lot less, with the exception of a handful of majors like engineering, for student success than do experiences. So the liberal arts colleges should focus on the experience they are giving students, and I name four in particular. One is undergraduate research. One is the deep connection between faculty and students. The third is study abroad. And the fourth is putting students in somewhat uncomfortable settings where they have a chance to be creative and where they learn how to fail. I think those four experiences matter much more than what a student majors in for their life success. And all of those, by the way, can’t be easily replicated online. To me, institutions that focus on what they’re offering students (rather than saying, “Okay, you come here and major in X, you get 120 credits, you’re done”) are the ones that are going to compete.

Also, they’ll need to tie those four things back to what employers want and value. I mean, there’s so much focus right now on the employability of students. And if you look at various surveys of what employers want, they really value the skills these types of experiences give you.

How much have things evolved just during the time between when you started writing the book and now? 

I have never seen anything in my 16 years of covering higher education move as fast as massive open online courses, which has caused obviously a lot of concern throughout higher education. A place like Coursera didn’t even exist a little bit more than a year ago, and today it has more than 30 university partners. It has more than 2 million students who have taken its courses, and it has more than 200 courses. And that’s in just over a year. And so for me the pace of change has definitely increased in the higher education marketplace during the time that I’ve been writing this book.

And then when it comes to the pace of response at the already established traditional colleges and universities, I’ve seen at least concern that change is coming. I haven’t necessarily seen a change in behavior yet. But I think they recognize the problem. They’re not really doing anything about it yet, but they have at least recognized the problem and are talking about it.

I do include at the end of my book a list of a few colleges that are leading the way in some regards. It’s not a comprehensive list, and they’re not doing everything that I mentioned, but all of them are doing aspects of what I talked about.

So will it be sufficient for a college to survive just by picking and choosing a couple of those innovations?

They can’t do it all, but I do think they need to figure out where their value is and double down on that and stop doing everything else.