Book Reviews

Book By: Jeffrey J. Selingo
Review By: Alison A Sommers
Senior Academic Counselor
University of Louisville

Jeffrey Selingo, the Editor-at-Large of the Chronicle of Higher Education, like so many others recently, asks “what is the value of a college degree?”  He is critical of the current state of college education but optimistic regarding the promise of technology, including MOOCs and hybrid courses, “unbundled” credit models and competency-based degree programs.  His frank analysis of the forces driving change in higher education, such as declining state funding, increasing competition for scarce research dollars, a customer-service/marketing orientation toward students, lowered academic standards and misleading financial aid practices, provides context for understanding the dilemmas facing universities today.

Some might see the first half of College (Un)Bound as a cynical deconstruction of an institution already suffering from previous mortal attacks (e.g. Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift and William Bennett’s Is College Worth It?).  However, Selingo believes we can meet these challenges through the thoughtful adoption of new models, especially those that maximize the boons of technology and offer ways for students of varying ages, preparation, motivation and resources to achieve their goals.

After addressing most of the major issues in higher education today (online classes, automated curriculum audits, graduation rates, swirling, tenure, flipped classrooms, student expectations, etc.), Selingo makes a number of specific recommendations for students who are deciding what college to attend, which he calls a “checklist for the future.” Among the questions applicants should consider are:  What is the job placement rate for graduates in my major?  What percentage of students transfer each year?  What is the percentage of full-time faculty and do they teach first-year classes?  Does the institution participate in national outcomes assessment programs and how do seniors score?  The message is clear:  universities need to provide answers to these questions.

There are two aspects of Selingo’s book which make it particularly effective.  The tone is direct and no-holds-barred, with no waffling, motivational boosterism or hedging.  While he cites data extensively, his writing style is personal, conversational and accessible.  He also considers both sides of issues, but doesn’t shy from making pronouncements like these:  “Students or their parents at most income levels should have a stake in paying for college,” (p. 51); and “Students benefit from going to the most selective college they can get into,” (p. 132). Particularly interesting are the quotations from interviews with surprisingly honest college administrators who admit to the serious problems we face.

For advisors, College (Un)Bound provides an overview of the challenges facing higher education and the growing national malaise about its value.  If advisors wish to be participants in these discussions, we need to be as informed as possible about the factors influencing policy decisions.  Selingo’s book provides a user-friendly introduction to the issues that can give us the perspective to take on this role and become active partners in deciding the future of our universities.  College Un(Bound) is a must-read for administrators, advisors, applicants and parents. It would be an excellent selection for an advisors’ reading circle.  Other recommended books in this domain are Derek Bok’s Higher Education in America (more academic) and William Bennett’s Is College Worth it? (more polemical.)  Advisors who want to have a voice in decision-making on their campus would do well to read all three.

Other sources cited:
Bok, Derek. Higher education in America.  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2013.
Arum, Richard and Roksa, Josipa. Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Bennett, William and Wilezol, David. Is college worth it? A former United States Secretary of Education and a liberal arts graduate expose the broken promise of higher education. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013.


College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students. (2013). Book By: Jeffrey J. Selingo, Review by Alison A Sommers. Boston: New Harvest Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 238 pp. $15.60. ISBN # 978-0-544-02707-7.

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