Expert Advises Rethinking Higher Education

Paying for college has always been a challenge, but never more so than today. On average, households with a student spend more than 40 percent of annual income on tuition, up from 25 percent in 2001, said Jeffrey Selingo, author and contributing editor to the Chronicle of Higher Education and a professor at Arizona State University.

Rising higher education prices and flat income growth account for this increase, said Selingo, who spoke at a November 14 event at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Nashville Branch.

Deciding where—and whether—to send kids to college is becoming more difficult not only because of the cost. In today's economy, people without the right credentials and training face grim employment prospects. At the same time, the value of a college degree is being questioned as cumulative student-loan debt in the United States exceeds $1 trillion and the job market for graduates remains sluggish, according to Selingo's book, College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students.

Among the major points in Selingo's book: Colleges know far more about their applicants than families know about the colleges. He said he wrote the book to level the playing field and arm families with information to help make one of their most important financial decisions.

Families angered by college costs
There is rising frustration as people make those decisions. Selingo said that in researching his book, he detected more anger than he expected about college affordability. However, families value higher education as much as they ever have as "the only ticket to the middle class in this country." In other words, demand for higher education is undiminished. It's just that consumers are starting to view it differently.

"People really do care about the strength of the American higher education system," Selingo said, "so in my opinion the industry is at risk, but the enterprise is not."

The industry, in this case, the colleges and universities, largely continue to operate the way they have for decades, Selingo said. Schools need to become more flexible to meet the changing needs of students and employers. Economic and societal forces have upended the traditional paradigm of leaving high school, spending four years in college, and then getting a job, he said.

Selingo noted that a third of babies born now will live to be 100. They will change jobs every four years, on average, and probably have multiple careers. Already, the old career road map no longer applies. Burdened with debt and facing difficult job prospects, college graduates today, on average, do not achieve financial independence until age 32, Selingo said, citing research by Georgetown University economist Anthony Carnevale. Only 20 percent of undergraduate students attend a traditional residential college or university, and most adults in their twenties spend time in and out of school and working.

Schools should be more flexible
To meet the needs of today's students, colleges and universities need to devise new ways to deliver knowledge and to measure student success, Selingo said. He advocates a blend of online learning, traditional face-to-face classes, and work experience. Selingo found that colleges that combine the classroom experience with "real-world learning"—such as meaningful research projects where students are challenged to solve problems by working in groups—have higher levels of student engagement than those that stick strictly with a more traditional classroom approach.

Schools need to also change the way they evaluate students. "We measure success by how much time you spend in a seat, not by how much knowledge is transferred," Selingo said. Even standard graduation rates can be misleading, as they typically count students who graduate within four years. For instance, he pointed out, some schools incorporate co-op work programs that delay students' graduation yet tend to help them land jobs.

Higher education in the future is more likely to be built around competencies rather than credit hours, Selingo believes. Several universities are experimenting with a competency-based model. Selingo feels this approach is crucial to delivering knowledge and skills that students want and that the workplace demands.

What do students need to know?
Unfortunately, schools and employers often disagree about what students need. Employers contend that colleges are not equipping students with the skills required in today's workplace. Colleges counter that employers do not really know exactly what they want—firms believe employees need broad-based skills but they tend to hire for specific needs. A more flexible higher education system could help deliver both, Selingo said.

Finally, higher education institutions need to better explain their value to families. Universities that can use hard data to demonstrate why their program is worth it, Selingo predicted, "are going to have tremendous market power in the future."