Summary of “College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Our Students” by Jeffrey J. Selingo

I recently read College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Our Students by Jeffrey J. Selingo who is the Editor-at-Large for the Chronicle of Higher Education. All in all this was a very interesting book and provided a number of interesting questions about the way that college is delivered and experienced by today’s Millennial generation.

What follows is a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book that highlights the parts that I thought were important or interesting. Thus, this summary reflects my personal biases and interests.


  • Only about half of students who start college actually finish. (ix)
  • A college education is still the best ticket to “get ahead” in today’s world, especially for disadvantaged students. (ix)
    • That being said, college is increasingly expensive, leading to an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. as the rich get college degrees and the poor do not. (xv, 17)
    • The higher education “industry” is can be very resistant to change. (xii)

Ch 1: The great credential race

  • “Colleges now view students as customers and market their degree programs as products.” (5)
  • The BA has become the new high school diploma, the MA has become the new BA, and the PhD the new MA. Getting degrees is highly valued in today’s economy. (8)
  • Students want to customize their college experience as they have learned to expect customization in other aspects of their life (= technology). (10)

Ch 2: The customer is always right

  • “Colleges are turning into businesses where customers –in this case, students—expect to be satisfied.” (20) “… course evaluations now look eerily similar to customer satisfaction surveys” (21)
  • Students expect their professors to be like performers. They “want to be engaged, persuaded, and entertained.” (21)
  • Grade inflation is occurring and will continue to occur. Students now tend to think that they “deserve an A because they did all of their assignments.” (24)
  • Why does college cost so much? One big reason: “state governments slashing budgets to higher education” (27)
  • Many college campuses are trying to appear like resorts and hotels to become more appealing to students. (30-34)

Ch 3: The trillion-dollar problemC

  • This chapter discusses the finances of tuition and financial aid.

Ch 4: The five disruptive forces that will change higher education forever

  • 1: “A sea of red ink” – college budgets were hit hard with the economic crisis of 2008 (58)
  • 2: “The disappearing state in public higher education” – state legislatures had no money either and so no money to pass along to universities (61)
  • 3: “The well of full-paying students is running dry” – this is one reason that colleges like to recruit internationally. International students can often pay full tuition. (64)
  • 4: “Unbundled alternatives are improving” – “unbundling” refers to the classes, degrees, credentials that up until recently came “bundled” with a college education. Now it’s getting easier to learn a skill in one place, take a class at another place, pick up a certificate from one institution, transfer credits to another, etc. The experience is getting more fragmented and customizable. (67)
  • 5: “The growing value gap” – the widening rich/poor gap is only being exacerbated by college affordability issues (70)

Ch 5: A personalized education

  • “Flipped classrooms” = students watch online lectures outside of class on a topic and then use class time to do projects or work through problems together. This becoming increasingly popular. (77)
  • “Big Data” is being used increasingly to predict student success and to recommend which classes/majors a student should sign up for (78-86). This is to help improve chances of graduation.

Ch 6: The online revolution

  • While technology has changed drastically over the last several years, professors today “teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago” (89).
  • Many courses are now being putting online and content available for free through open course software and websites. This content is customizable, portable, and cheap.
  • Research has shown that students usually learn “just as much in the hybrid [online + face to face] format as they would have in the traditional course” (101).

Ch 7: The student swirl

  • Students are increasingly moving from institution to institution throughout their higher education experience. Transfers are becoming more common.
  • Students earn credit for each “credit hour” they take, which is defined by the government as “one hour of directly faculty instruction and two hours of work outside of the class during each week of the semester” (112).
  • As instruction becomes more customizable and technology makes education more portable and fragmented, what if we tried some different ideas? Example: what if degrees were granted based on skills/knowledge demonstrated instead of time spent in classrooms? (113)

Ch 8: Degrees of value

  • How do we measure the value of a college education?
  • We often measure this based on the average earnings of graduates. (124) Is this the best way to measure the “value” of an education? No, but it’s harder to quantify intangibles that we might prefer.
  • Do college majors matter? (130) He argues “no, not really” but instead critical thinking skills and competencies matter more. Although, STEM fields still earn more than humanities and social science majors on average.
  • Does the institution matter? He argues “more or less, yes” (131). Those who go to more selective schools tend to make more than those who go to less selective schools. Also, being a “B” student at a better school is better than being an “A” student at a poorer school in terms of post-graduate opportunities. (132-133)

Ch 9: The skills of the future

  • Double-majoring is on the rise because students are demanding it, not because educators think it’s a good idea (143).
  • Again, critical thinking skills, ability to solve problems, ability to be self-motivated, ability to get along with others, effective written/oral communication skills, etc. is more important that specific content or skills (145-147).
  • What should a student do in college to be successful afterwards? (149)
    • “Seek passionate faculty mentors” to take classes from and work with.
    • “Dive deep into a research project” – do undergraduate research projects.
    • “Go on a transformative learning experience” by studying abroad.
    • “Be creative, take risks, learn  how to fail”

Ch 10: Why college?

  • College prices are going up, in part, because of the demand for services from staff to “help students mature” (= student life, counseling, career services, etc.) “In many parts of the world, the maturing experience is provided before college by a mandatory national or military service.” (165)
  • As education and income are highly correlated and the economic gap is widening, we’re also geographically self-sorting and concentrating the best-educated into urban and metro areas of the country. (167)
  • Ultimately, college graduates are better able to “make sense of the world around them” (170).


  • Five ways higher education will change in the future
    • A personalized education (175): education will become increasingly personalized and customizable for each individual student, including course content, major requirements, semester start/stop schedules, etc.
    • Hybrid classes (177): online courses will continue play a more prominent role in our education.
    • Unbundling the degree (178): colleges will be forced to start unbundling their products (courses, certificates, skills, experiences, content, etc.) so that students can mix and match in more diverse ways.
    • Fluid timelines (179): why must college be a four-year experience? Why not let students go at their own pace, either faster or slower?
    • College moneywise (180): encourage saving for college and making it more affordable.

Finally, here are some of my personal ruminations on this book’s content:

  • I like that the four recommendations that the author makes to students are four of the things that Centre College does very well: 1) hires passionate faculty, 2) promotes undergraduate research, 3) promotes study abroad, and 4) provides opportunities for creativity.
  • I’m more interested in looking into ways that I could possibly incorporate more online content for my courses in an effective manner.
  • Personalization and “unbundling” of products sounds great from the students’ perspective, but I wonder how this would look from the instructor perspective. How in the world would a professor be able to create 30 different syllabi for 30 different students who all want a personalized education experience with their own customizable content, assignments, deadlines, etc.? This is an extreme form of the concept, admittedly, but I wonder how practical this would be in terms of implementation.
  • It seems that doing something to address the widening gap between the educated and un-educated should be made a much higher priority on the part of lawmakers and policymakers.
  • I’m part of the camp that is leery about measuring the value of a college experience based on potential post-graduate earnings. To me, the most valuable part of my seven years of higher education was learning the cognitive skills to be able to critically analyze the world around me and be able to make better judgments and decisions about how I interact with others and what I want to prioritize in my life. It’s hard to put a price tag on that.

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