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November 04. 2013 6:38PM

Speaker at New England College: Colleges must change or be left behind

HENNIKER — Jeffrey Selingo has been watching the evolution of higher education from the vantage of journalism, and told a group of New Hampshire educators that if they don’t keep up with the changing times, their institutions may be left behind or, in some cases, disappear.

Selingo, author of “College (Un)Bound,” was the keynote speaker at Friday’s annual conference of the New Hampshire College & University Council and the Campus Compact for New Hampshire held at New England College. As a scholar, editor-at-large for the Chronicle of Higher Education and a journalist, Selingo has been paying close attention to the changing face of institutions of learning and the students who attend them.

What he’s found is that the current model for colleges and universities is only serving the needs of a fraction of American students, and the priorities of many middle-tier institutions aren’t in line with what their consumer base — kids and their parents — wants or needs.

With the average cost of attending college for four years ranging from $100,000 for public schools and $160,000 for private schools, students and their parents are carrying more debt coming out of college than ever before. At the same time, Selingo said, kids right out of college are facing a 9 percent unemployment rate within their age group, are taking much longer to leave their parents’ homes than they were just a few years ago and, on average, are not anticipated to reach financial independence until the age of 32.Parents and students are becoming more and more concerned about rising college costs, fueled by a hunger for prestige or an attempt to draw prospective students by offering an increasingly expensive array of amenities. The increase in costs is happening at the same time that family income, state funding for public institutions and college enrollments are dropping. Students who are being forced to attend college by their parents “at any cost” often end up transferring to other institutions, thereby extending their time in school, or drop out of college altogether.

The traditional focus on pushing 18-year-olds into residential colleges and expecting them to come out in four years with a bachelor’s degree that will set them up for a single, lifelong career is not working, Selingo said.

“Only 20 percent of students will go to residential colleges full time and graduate in four years,” he said. “We need to let a college model emerge that’s not so rigid.”

There are a number of ways colleges and universities can meet the needs of a changing student population. Online classes, hybrid courses that combine classroom time with online content and competency-based programs that allow students with strong knowledge in some areas to accelerate the degree process are just some of the ways institutions can address the needs and wants of modern kids.

“This personalized approach to learning is already happening,” said Selingo.

But another avenue for decreasing the cost of education is cooperation between institutions, Selingo said. The schools could benefit by focusing on their strengths and letting other institutions step in to provide support in programs where there are weaknesses. The concept would call for one admission, access to many colleges, but would provide a single transcript.

“Institutions have much more value as a group than as a single entity,” said Selingo.

Jessica Santos of the New Hampshire Office of Minority Health asked what the faculty workforce would look like should some of Selingo’s recommended changes take effect.

He said that schools are using more and more adjunct professors to avoid giving tenure to professors.

“When mandatory retirement ended, tenure didn’t,” he said. “We need a clock on tenure.”

Professors who become entrenched in the system and continue teaching when it may be past the time for them to go make it difficult for colleges to justify hiring full-time teachers, but the students are missing out on the benefits of having faculty mentors because the number of full-time professors is so limited.

Selingo also said that accreditation and federal financial aid present obstacles to innovation of the traditional college model.

Andrea Bard, a professor at Southern New Hampshire University, asked how students who have difficulty finding their classrooms are going to be able to negotiate the challenges of a nontraditional approach to educations.

Selingo said that realigning current student support systems to meet the new models will help those who are going to succeed. Those who aren’t motivated to succeed won’t do so no matter what the model looks like.

nfoster@newstote.com


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