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

collegeunboundCollege Unbound is a thoughtful, informative, and nearly exhaustive look at the ways in which higher education may best serve today’s young learners. Thank you, Net Galley and Amazon Publishing for this extremely useful volume, which I received free in exchange for my review. It will be available for sale April 28.

It became available at an important time. My youngest child is a high school senior contemplating college; I am retired, and still paying off my own student loans. Selingo’s discussion of the worth of post-graduate education, whether it is better to attend a two year school or pony up for a pricy school that has a lot of perks and more financial aid available, and the ways in which higher education itself needs to change gained my full attention.

It seems that my own debt-ridden situation is not unusual. Now that not all student loans are subsidized by the government, many graduates exit the comforting, ivy-covered walls of higher learning saddled with 50k or more in student loans and no guarantee of future employment. Most at risk are those that excel in liberal arts, since today’s economy is more geared toward mathematics, technology, and hard sciences.

Selingo suggests, among other things, that higher education needs to unbundle, so that students can combine credits and experience from a variety of schools and other sources, such as on-the-job training, in order to receive their degree. He also points out that many students can get the best result for their dollar (or yours) with a one or two year certification program at a local community college or technical school, rather than paying out the big bucks for a 4 year or advanced degree.

As I read, I flagged nearly 100 passages that I thought were worth revisiting. There’s a lot of information here, and a lot of thoughtful ideas. Selingo has the experience to back his suggestions, and in addition to citing his sources in a conversational way for greater accessibility to text, Selingo has also spent many years in college administration and journalism, including the much-lauded US News and World Report guide to colleges.

One thing I watched for all the way through, as he discussed a wide variety of options, including online learning and experimental hybrid classes, was what he thought of alternative schools. At one point he used the term, but it turned out that he was referring, once again, to online and “unbundled” options. Given that the author discussed the need to avoid “dumbing down” curriculum for the sake of students-as-consumers (here, here!), and the need for critical thinking skills that would create better problem solvers once graduates hit the job market, I immediately thought of actual alternative schools such as Evergreen State College, Bennington, Eugene Lang, and Antioch, where students are not just taught rote content, but how to think more critically. My daughter attends a strong alternative high school, and all four of my other children went there too, turning down Seattle’s much-lauded AP program for highly capable students. I gained my teaching credential and advanced degree at one of these alternative colleges, and although the student loan debt is no joke, I was able to go directly from school to a job in a field where the average graduate in Washington State had to spend three or four years working in temporary or substitute positions while waiting for their break.

And so…what? And this is why the fifth star in my review is denied. Just like US News and World Report (now moribund save for its college guide), Selingo completely leaves alternative schools out of the picture. If he doesn’t like them, he should say that and explain why. If they are recommended, he should include that information.

My conclusion is that this is nevertheless a really good resource for parents of teens who are trying to decide what choices to offer their children after high school is over. The decision, says Selingo, is often not a rational one, and this resonates. How many parents go for the higher price tag because they feel nothing is too good for their son, their daughter? And yet, says Selingo, more expensive is not always better, and a rarefied atmosphere does not always produce the result anticipated by those who pay or borrow heavily. I’ve only scratched the surface of what he has to say. So although I do recommend also considering alternative education, when you find yourself facing that vast selection of college-shopping materials available, include this forward-looking volume in your collection.

Although most teenagers won’t likely read it, adults considering returning to school and facing the financial decisions for themselves, rather than their parents, should also give Selingo’s discussion your time and attention.

In order to get the best education at the best price for ourselves or our children, we must first learn about the schools and educational paths we are considering.

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