Sunday, June 02, 2013

The future of college

College is such a critical part of modern life that sometimes we forget the difference between “college” and “education”.  Now that my children are closing in on that age, I’ve been thinking about it more.  How is college changing? How can I ensure my kids get the right education?

There are plenty of books (and seminars and consultants) that explain how to get into top colleges, but I don’t really want a how-to manual (maybe it’s my liberal arts education :-). This book, a well-written summary of the bigger and more important trends, was exactly what I needed. The author, Jeffrey Selingo, is a long-time editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, so his natural audience is people in the academic community, but I found it to be a good overview for interested parents too.

Higher education is in the midst of one of its biggest transformations ever.  Maybe you don’t need to worry just yet If you’re a tenured professor at a reasonably good school, but frankly if you’re just starting to consider a career in academia, you better think carefully because the reset that universities are undergoing will almost certainly make jobs in the Ivory Tower very different just a few years from now. Clay Christenson (The Innovator’s Dilemma) says the disruption is so big that in fifteen years half of universities will be bankrupt.

Technology is the immediate driver of urgency, but as Selingo notes, the problems in higher education are deeper and result from decades of societal attitudes and government policies that focus on the degree itself, as though no dollar amount is too much to justify additional spending on college.

It’s a vicious cycle.  See Bennett’s hypothesis:  “increases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that Federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase”.  Academics will tell you the evidence for this is controversial, but to me it seems self-evident when you look at the rise of “resort colleges” with their expensive – but to immature 18-year-olds, appealing – amenities. When it can easily cost $200K to send a kid to a four-year college, there had better be a lot more value than free ice cream trucks (true story: Hill Point University in North Carolina uses that as one of its many gimmicks incentives  to persuade trick high school seniors into getting their parents to pay the outrageous tuition).

It’s not just tuition prices that are going up, even beyond whatever Baumol’s cost disease predicts. There’s grade inflation of course (did you know that 91% of Harvard students graduate with honors?)  but also an inflation in degrees themselves: with so many low-quality college degrees, it’s getting to the point where you need a master’s degree to stand out, with almost 700K awarded in 2009.  As Selingo writes (p10), "The number of people with a master's degree is now about equal to those with at least a bachelor's degree in's probably only a matter of time before the doctorate is the new master's degree".

But the same forces that disrupted the music industry, then journalism, are now coming to universities, and for a similar reason: much easier distribution of information. Some of that, obviously, is the rise of online learning (the book goes into details everything from Khan Academy to Coursera), but better information affects more than just the learning itself. 

For example, it’s much easier to find a good college using several amazing new online resources: Naviance, the excellent detailed database of colleges which most good high schools already subscribe to, and ConnectEDU, which uses a student’s academic record to predict the best fits for colleges and majors. I think resources like this are much more valuable than the newly-fashionable parent-child college tours, which are really more of a family bonding experience than an objective way to learn about colleges.  Who on earth would make a decision based on the impressions of a quick visit – many of which, Selingo notes, are now guided tours put together by the same people who plan experiences at Disneyland.

Information is causing another disruption, thanks to new transparency about the the true ROI for individual colleges and majors. Virginia law requires its colleges to to publish data about the salary earnings of their graduates. In other states, even when colleges don’t want that information published, the company Payscale ranks schools using their extensive data about starting as well as mid-career salaries of their alums. The results are not good news for many schools, and you can see why a shakeout is long overdue.

If you or your kid are one of the few (one out of five, according to psychologist William Damon) who knows what they want to do in life, the coming changes to higher education will seem natural and overdue. For other kids, though (and their parents), the information in this book is indispensible: see his suggestions about overseas study, time off before/during college, preparing better in high school.

My college education, as wonderful as it was for me, will seem quaint and largely irrelevant much faster than we think. This book is a great introduction to how it will change.