The Friendly Skies of Higher Ed

Reposted from the article published on LinkedIn by Chip Cutter.
Images by Getty. For a detailed perspective read Jeff Selingo’s book:
College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students.”

Will Colleges Soon Look Like Airline Alliances?

Airline Alliances1

It’s very much like an airline alliance where you might buy one ticket, but fly three different airlines.
So you might apply to one school, but end up going to three or four.
Some of them face-to-face, some of them virtually.

As the cost of higher education surges, lawmakers are searching for ways to make college more affordable. President Barack Obama proposed a plan last week to tie financial aid to educational outcomes and, essentially, cost effectiveness.

But that’s just the beginning. Higher education is in the midst of a massive change that threatens the very existence of some established schools. So what will the future of college look like?

Few know better than Jeffrey J. Selingo, an editor at large at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the author of a smart new book on the subject, “College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students.”

He talked with me about why the U.S. is so bad at graduating students, why some schools are about to go bust and why colleges may soon look a lot like the airline industry. Our conversation, edited slightly for space and clarity, follows:

Let’s start with the number in your book that makes all the headlines: Just 50 percent of students who enter college in the U.S. graduate with a degree. Of developed nations, only Italy ranks lower. Why is that?

For one thing, we have a lot more students going to college than ever before. Students are now going to college who maybe 20 or 30 years ago wouldn’t have gone to college. Part of the issue here is that some students are not quite ready for college at 18. They end up going at 18 and dropping out. So then we end up with many adults with some credits but no degree.

There’s also some bad matching: students going to the wrong college for them. During the admission process, schools know so much more about the student than the student really knows about the school. Students fall in love with the school; they get an emotional attachment to it, but it ends up not being the right fit for them.

There’s an entire movement suggesting that students shouldn’t go to college. What’s your take: Does a bachelor’s degree still have value?

I’m not a big fan of the don’t-go-to-college movement. If you look at the economic statistics over the last 30 or 40 years, people with a bachelor’s degree are going to earn, over the course of their lifetime, anywhere from $800,000 to $1 million more than someone with just a high school diploma. And they’re much more likely to remain employed. The unemployment rate is much lower among college graduates than it is among high school graduates.

The problem now is that some schools are overcharging for that bachelor’s degree. Students need to be much savvier customers in terms of trying to figure out: Where am I going to get the best bang for my buck? Sometimes that might mean starting at a community college and transferring to a four-year public school. That might mean going to a public, instead of a private, college.

Or, if you go to a private college, (think about) picking certain majors. There’s nothing against majoring in English. But if you’re going to major in English, maybe you should go to the state university in your home state, rather than pay five times the amount by going to a private college out of state.

So what kind information should students and parents be looking at to make these smarter decisions?

We have a lot more data now on outcomes: meaning how much somebody makes with a degree in a particular field from a particular university. In five states now, we have data all the way down to the individual institution and the individual major. That means I can tell you how much an English major makes in the first year after they graduate from George Mason University.

Now, academics hate this stuff. There are intrinsic values of going to college, they say. The idea is learning for the sake of learning; you end up maturing yourself. I agree; I don’t think you should pick a college based just on how much money you’re going to make after you graduate. Because if you pick a college that way, and if you pick a major that way, most likely you’re not going to have the passion that’s needed in order to succeed in that field. But cost has to be part of the equation, especially if you’re being asked to take on $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 worth of debt. It’s necessary for you to know: What are last year’s econ graduates doing? Or English graduates? Or science graduates? Find out what they’re doing. Find out how much they’re making. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request for parents to make and for schools to start figuring it out.

Plenty of pundits predict that we’ll see more universities go bust in the next couple of years, though. So what schools are going to suffer most?

The first places you’re going to see this is at small private colleges in states where the population of 18- to 24-year-olds is dropping. Most of those schools are heavily tuition dependent, which means they have to fill every seat they have. They’re not well known, and they draw most of their students from a local or regional area. And now the demographics are not in their favor; there are fewer high school graduates than they had five years ago even. Those are the schools that are first in trouble.

Regional public colleges in some of these states also have way too many campuses for how many students they really have in the state. We have a lot of states in the Midwest and Northeast where the demographics are not in their favor. Think about a state like Massachusetts, New York or Pennsylvania. They all have more than 100 private colleges, plus dozens of public colleges. There’s just way too much capacity in those states when most of the students now are in the south and southwest. Those students from the southwest will fly to Boston to go to Harvard. They’re not going to fly to Massachusetts to go to a private or public college nobody has ever heard of.

Employers in so many ways are the key here. Right now, the degree still matters. The degree is really the only signal to the employer that you’re ready. You look at any job ad and almost every one says a bachelor’s degree – not “a couple of online credits” or “a few badges from the Kahn Academy” – is needed to apply. In Silicon Valley and some tech companies, I don’t think they care as much; they care more that you can just do the work. But in other sectors where employers are unhappy with the college graduates they are getting, I think they are going to be open to other possibilities.

So much is written about the skills gap and employers being frustrated with applicants. Will companies play a bigger role in determining what higher education teaches?

We are seeing that already. I think community colleges and colleges that are serving a local market are really good at serving the needs of the employers. In a way this is problematic, too, because most times employers don’t know what they want. We think of employees as this broad group, yet when you go and talk with someone at one particular company, and then go down the hall, and the CEO and someone in charge of HR are on totally different pages with what they want.

The economy is also changing at warp speed. If you try to build a program with what the economy needs today, by the time you build that program, and get students in it with what they need to graduate, the workforce could then be completely different. Colleges need to be responsive with what is going on in the larger economy, but I also think it is dangerous at the same time to design specific programs around the needs of employers.

Crystal ball moment: Twenty years from now, what will we see on college campuses? Will they still exist in physical form?

Schools will still exist in physical form, but I think they are going to become much more narrow in what they do. I don’t think you’re necessarily going to go to a physical college, or at least one physical college campus, for all four years. I foresee a future of students where, not all students, but a greater number than today, move among a coalition of colleges and schools.

It’s very much like an airline alliance where you might buy one ticket, but fly three different airlines. So you might apply to one school, but end up going to three or four. Some of them face-to-face, some of them virtually. I think you’ll be moving between work and college. You’re going to be out in the community doing service projects, or being involved in an internship, to apply what you’re learning. This idea that you’ll go to college and be “locked” on campus for four years, I think those days will be over. We’ll see a lot more movement to and through colleges in the future where students will be gaining different experiences in different places.

To continue the airline analogy, colleges will essentially be developing “code share” agreements with different schools? So a community college might be a “regional” jet, feeding passengers to the flagship four-year university?

Yes. Part of the problem is that all of the colleges out there can not afford to run all of the programs they are running. If every college has 30 or 40 majors, they cannot afford to do that forever. So, why not, especially now with technology, why not have three or four or ten of them join together and say, “Okay, we’re going to do these five majors, this college will do those five majors,” and combine them in that way.

Do you see this working?

Not for all majors, as some majors need to have a detailed curriculum, and you need to be in class most of the time and not working. But part of the problem we have now is this “one size fits all” system. Every major is treated the same, every student is treated the same. We say come to school in September, you end in May, you go 15 weeks a semester, you take 120 credits, and you’re done in four years. I just think that system does not work for the different students and majors we have, and most of all, it costs too much. We’re going to have to think of treating majors and students in different ways in order to improve learning and reduce costs.

You’ve been touring around the country for the book. What is the main concern you’re hearing from talking with Americans about higher education?

Will a college education be absolutely necessary to succeed in the future? This idea, can I skip college and still succeed? And, will all the colleges that are in business today still be in business in 20 years? I make a lot of comparisons with other industries like the publishing, newspaper, and music industries. We see the disruption all of those industries went through. There are fewer people working in them today, and there are few players. Everyone thinks that that will happen to higher education, and it may. I think we’ll see some schools go out of business, some schools merge, but I do not see foresee half the colleges going out of business over the next ten years. That would be a major disruption, and I think there is enough of a market for them to serve — for example, just all of those adults who dropped out of college coming back.

I want to come back to that question: “Do I need to go to college?” Is the answer actually, “it depends?”

I’m still a traditionalist and believe you need a post-high school education, and the point I try to make is that I don’t think you need it necessarily at 18. We need a lot more alternatives to college at 18 because too many students feel forced to go to college then since there are not enough alternatives; it’s really the military or work. So this idea of national service, this idea of a gap year or apprenticeships, we need something else to fill the time for somebody who is not ready to go to college, and by the time they are 22, they are ready to go to college. You do need some sort of college education, at some point in your life, because a high school education as we define it today just doesn’t cut it.

One Response to The Friendly Skies of Higher Ed

  1. Pingback: The ‘Highway Through College’ is More Like a Winding Country Road | hireED4HigherEd

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