Monday, May 6, 2013

Who Are U?

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

Let us start with a statement college professors, homeschool advocates, and Jeffrey Selingo can surely agree upon: American higher education is too expensive. Budget cuts have jacked tuition, schools spend scarce resources outside the classroom, administrative roles have become patronage plums, and deregulated loans put many working-class students in debt they may never beat. The question becomes: what do we do about it?

Books like this one matter, not because they attempt to answer the question, but because they advance the debate. No 250-page book can truly address all the options. Believe me, several noble attempts have crossed my desk. But they inevitably reflect the authors’ preferences for what American education should resemble. Therein, maybe, lies the problem, that American higher ed has become perilously homogenous.

Selingo, a respected educational journalist, addresses the question from multiple angles, gathering diverse sources with divergent views, reflecting real trends in recent debate. Because he addresses so much, I find myself swinging wildly. At one moment, I pump my fist and shout “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Then the next moment, I palm my face and mutter “No! No! No!” Then I ask myself the real question: why do I feel so strongly?

Education, Selingo says, has suffered in the last decade from a “race to the top” that involves little actual educational content. Highly groomed campuses and pricey sports championships attract new enrollees and alumni donations. But colleges, particularly private colleges, have offset these expenses by hiring adjunct instructors, concentrating efforts on grant-earning grad students, and packing undergrads into lecture halls of questionable pedagogical value.

We could reverse such trends by re-evaluating what education is for. The emphasis on defined disciplines and mandatory curricular trajectories is cost-effective and requires little effort from professors. Prestige majors with putative professional applications lock students into career tracks early. Instead, we should recall that employers, and society, love college grads not for their subject mastery, but for their wide-ranging ability to face new and unprecedented challenges.

I’ve made similar claims myself. But where the rubber meets the road, Selingo has a frustrating tendency to get giddy over unproven options. He especially shares contemporary reformers’ uncritical love for technology. Selingo writes: “Every new study of online learning arrives at essentially the same conclusion: students who take all or part of their classes online perform better than those who take the same course through traditional instruction.”

That’s just not true. Earlier this year, Selingo’s own magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote: “Online Courses Could Widen Achievement Gap Among Students.” The more online courses students take, the greater their dropout risk. This especially applies to minorities, men, and students less prepared for the rigors of self-guided education. Multiple studies in multiple sources confirm this.

Consider: Selingo praises Thrun and Norvig’s celebrated 2011 online Stanford course that attracted 160,000 enrollees worldwide. But according to his own numbers, this class had a completion rate of only 13.75%, barely a third of Fairleigh-Dickinson University’s graduation rate, which Selingo calls “dismal.” Sure, a thousand students got job referrals, but would you pay to enroll in such a class for a one-in-160 chance of professional advancement?

In fairness, Selingo repeatedly ventures in the right direction, but not far enough. He drops a one-sentence reference to St. John’s College of Annapolis and Santa Fe, which is one more sentence than I’ve seen elsewhere. Schools like St. John’s, Deep Springs, and Reed College, which soften or eliminate disciplinary divisions, graduate high numbers of desirable employees. Why not more in this direction?

Similarly, Selingo makes a fleeting reference to competencies earned through “internships outside of the classroom.” I’ve often suggested students could benefit from non-classroom education, particularly vocational students who could learn their fields faster through old-fashioned apprenticeship. I know research exists on this, because I’ve read it in authors like John Taylor Gatto. But Selingo just name-drops it and walks away.

Don’t mistake me. Despite my critical tone above, Selingo says plenty I think educators could stand to hear. We need to remain responsive to our students, providing personalized education that works around especially working-class students’ needs. And we must eschew discipline-based “skillz drillz,” instead empowering students’ higher reasoning ability. I may dispute Selingo’s details, but his thesis is spot on.

On balance, I do recommend this book as part of a balanced library on what necessary reforms await American higher ed. We may embrace his principles while rejecting his brass tacks. I simply encourage any would-be readers to approach this book with their critical thinking cap on.

On a similar topic:
Living For the New U
The Next University

No comments:

Post a Comment