What I learned about higher education (after reading two books)

Titles Covered:

Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education by Jon McGee

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

The transactional degree

Since, maybe, the turn of the century, families around the world have looked upon the university degree as a gateway to the middle class. Many of those people who attend university end up believing that the degree is the most important aspect of going to college.

It’s what Jon McGee calls the transactional degree in his book Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education. To me, it’s one of the more interesting aspects I’ve learned about college — after reading two books on the issues facing higher education. Going to college  used to be a transformative experience. Today, it’s the time you spend between high school and a career.

And that’s partly where the modern university is going wrong.

The transactional product means that people view higher education as a mere commodity. People are looking to be treated like paying customers who must be satisfied, which places the college in difficult position. One, students who only think about college only as a ladder to a career may question taking courses in other disciplines, a hallmark of the liberal arts degree. They may question taking part in activities outside of classes on campus, a hallmark of the traditional American university.

Of course, students should see themselves as customers. Universities have an obligation to make the paths easier that students take through their institution. However, universities have been moving too far outside of its traditional calling. 

College was never meant to be place late adolescents went to mature and learn to be adults. In fact, argues Jeffrey J. Selingo in College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, much of the tuition increases at universities during the last decade and a half stem from new services universities started to meet the needs of maturing young adults.

Bells and whistles

New buildings were built and new services created, like increased career and job placement offices, health centers and psychological services, intramural sports and leisure centers like (the infamous) campus climbing walls and floating rivers. All of these services add high costs that must be made up through tuition hikes. The only aspect of college that didn’t get bigger and grander, Selingo argues, is that students were not exposed to rigorous classes.

Don’t be fooled by these bells and whistles of shiny buildings, Selingo writes. The top schools don’t generally operate this way. Call it keeping up with the Joneses. What may also be a good way for second-tier schools to attract students can also be a race to the bottom in pushing up tuition while not adding to the academic bottom line. 

This is an important point from both of these books: They are not talking about the top-tier, strikingly selective universities. Their anecdotes mostly concern state schools and less selective private schools, the sometimes quite good and sometimes quite uneven universities that educate the vast majority of students in the United States. (The places where I went to school.) Because these schools are responsible for educating a large number of students, their decision making impacts a lot of lives. 

Is college worth it?

Is a college degree necessary? It’s one of the questions underpinning many debates on higher education. Economically it would seem so. In 2002, a person with a bachelors would make 75 percent more in lifetime wages than a person who graduated from high school. In 2013, that number rose to 84 percent. During the great recession, I remember, the unemployment rate for high school graduates at one point was 14 percent, much higher than college educated, especially those with more than a bachelor’s degree.

But that doesn’t say everything about the efficacy of the undergraduate degree. Selingo spent time following people who were either not academically prepared or not intellectually mature enough to go to college. They fell into a worse hole of paying off high student debt but not having the degree to show for it.

McGee takes a more measured approach you’d expect to find in an admissions officer like him, arguing that the student/university relationship is just that, a relationship. Students bring certain aspects to this relationship, such as aptitude, motivation and aspirations. Universities bring to the table a purpose (their mission and values), the product (courses and other experiences) and the processes, the way they deliver the product. 

The relationship is successful when both sides are pulling the same way, McGee seems to say. 

Selingo, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, takes a more big picture focus. What the US needs, he argues, is to create viable education alternatives between the high school diploma and the college degree. Programs that should be geared towards specific jobs, but with the idea that today’s students will most likely secure five to ten different professional jobs in their future. Tomorrow’s programs need to have enough practical applicability to make students immediately marketable but also include enough background where students could teach themselves to learn for the future. Community colleges and other state institutions do a lot of this work already, but many of them remain financially strapped that a degree from these places may not be so financially beneficial. 

A lot of students we met were turned off by various aspects of a liberal education. They felt that the process of choosing a college is too opaque to make educated decisions. Many students felt that no matter their individual needs they were led down the same paths tread by everyone else. 

Higher education's biggest challenge is how to handle the growing chasm between education needs and current reality. Universities will be forced to develop new course delivery methods with an increasingly mobile (and busy) student body. Their programs must better be suited to students who now transfer schools at a much higher rate than even a generation before. They will also have to do a better job of aligning their needs with that of industry, creating degrees not from the whims of 19 year olds but from actual market needs. 

So lists most of my knowledge of higher education (in the United States) after reading two books. 

The tyranny of academic metrics

Jerry Z. Muller, a history professor at Catholic University, on the Tyranny of Metrics, on how colleges and universities lean on simple black-and-white statistics to determine important grey-area decisions like faculty hiring, retention and tenure. 

When individual faculty members, or whole departments, are judged by the number of publications, whether in the form of articles or books, the incentive is to produce more publications, rather than better ones. Really important books may take many years to research and write. But if the system rewards speed and volume, the result is likely to be a decline in truly significant scholarship. 


Even if you leave aside the accuracy and reliability of these metrics, consider the message they convey. Initiatives like the College Scorecard treat higher education in purely economic terms: Its sole concern is return on investment, understood as the relationship between the monetary costs of college and the increase in earnings that a degree will ultimately provide. Those are, of course, legitimate considerations. College costs eat up an increasing percentage of family income or require the student to take on debt; and making a living is among the most important tasks in life.

But it is not the only task in life, and it is an impoverished conception of college that regards it purely in terms of its ability to enhance earnings. If we distinguish training, which is oriented to production and survival, from education, which is oriented to making survival meaningful, then metrics are only about the former.