Required Reading: CC Chats with Jeffrey Selingo, Author of College (Un)Bound

In his provocative new book on higher education, College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, Jeffrey J. Selingo posits that the current system is broken, and that colleges can no longer continue to “sell” the four-year college degree as the most viable path to success.

Based in Washington DC, Selingo is editor at large for The Chronicle of Higher Education and is a frequent contributor to the national college discussion. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post. Selingo also appears regularly on national broadcast, including recent appearances on NPR’s On Point, All Things Considered, and The Diane Rehm Show, ABC’s World News Tonight, and PBS’s NewsHour.

Selingo talks with CollegeConfidential about higher-ed trends like reverse transfer and “undermatching,” and offers advice to parents and students for keeping your cool during the hectic college search.

College Confidential: How can parents encourage their student to think more realistically—and less emotionally—about cost when it comes to choosing a college?

Jeffrey Selingo: Discussions about how families are going to pay for college happen too late in the search for the right school. Think about it: before we buy a house, we figure out how much we can afford to spend, get pre-approved for a loan, and then look for homes in a specific price range. But you can’t do this when you look for a college. Sure, you know a school’s sticker price, but most students don’t pay that. You often don’t know how much financial aid you might get until a few weeks before you need to make a decision.

It’s unlikely this flawed process will be fixed anytime soon. So parents and students need to become more savvy consumers by getting a realistic view of what they actually might pay for the colleges they’re considering. Before you even start making a list of colleges, talk as a family about expectations: How much has the family saved? How much debt do the graduate and parents want to take on? How much will the student work during college and the summers? Don’t forget to take into account that tuition prices will increase over the four years you’re in school and the aid you get your first year is not guaranteed. And be realistic about other expenses: travel to and from school and location of the college—New York City is much more expensive than Ithaca, NY, for instance.

Having such a discussion before you start making a list of schools helps separate emotion from reality. To get a better idea of how much a particular school might cost for a student like you, be sure to check out the Net Price Calculator, which every college is required to have on their Web site under federal law. To get a better sense of where you can get the best bang for your buck, look at College Reality Check (collegerealitycheck.com), a Web site from The Chronicle of Higher Education that allows you to compare colleges on various measures, including debt at graduation and early career salaries.

CC: I believe the concept of reverse transfers is an important trend worth discussing. [Note: reverse transfer refers to the concept of students moving from a four-year college to a two-year. The reasons are not always clear, but academics and finances certainly play a role.] Why is this happening more today?

JS: We don’t always know why people drop out of college or transfer schools. It’s for a mix of academic and financial reasons, but they are often related to each other. Students have to work too much to pay the tuition bill, for instance, and their grades suffer as a result.

The reverse transfer phenomenon recognizes that community colleges are not only less expensive, but often offer both small classes and the academic support that their large state counterparts can’t, especially in the first two years. Many classes for freshmen at a big public colleges number into the hundreds. Students never get to know a professor, or might be taught by a graduate student. Students might not get a full-time instructor at a community college, but those introductory classes are likely to be smaller.

Reverse transfer is also on the increase because many states have made it easier to transfer credits between public colleges. For many students, the transfer process is frustrating and expensive, because you’re often required to repeat classes. But in states where the transfer process has been made easier—Arizona and Florida, for instance—students don’t have to fear losing time and money in transferring from a four-year college to a two-year school and then back to a four-year college.

CC: What is “undermatching,” and how does it play a role in college graduation?

JS: Undermatching is when students choose not to attend the best college they can get into. There are all sorts of reasons why students pick less selective colleges. They might want to stay close to home; they might want to go to the least expensive college (this is particularly true of poorer students); or maybe they are worried they won’t be able to keep up with their classmates.

Here’s the problem with undermatching: the selectivity of a college is closely linked to graduating on time, and sometimes graduating at all. The harder the college is to get into, the better chances you’ll graduate. So if you go to a less selective college by choice—in other words, you undermatch—you’re taking a risk, especially if the school is a lot less selective.

There should be a good reason for deliberately choosing not to attend the best college you can get into. Too often the reason students make these questionable choices is some combination of inertia, lack of information, lack of forward planning for college, and lack of encouragement.

CC: Expanding on the term “practical arts,” what role have they played in overall trends in majors? Can you discuss the role that passion and curiosity play in choosing a major?

JS: The majority of college degrees today are awarded in occupational or vocational areas—the “practical arts”—such as business, education, and communications. Indeed, the most popular undergraduate major is business. In the late 1960s, half of the degrees in the U.S. were awarded in traditional arts and sciences fields (English, math, and biology, for example). Today these fields make up only one quarter.

I majored in a practical field—journalism. But here’s the problem with many practical majors, like journalism. Given the economy is moving at such a rapid pace and the jobs of tomorrow haven’t even been created yet, much of the “practical training” I received in my undergraduate journalism classes less than 20 years ago is now useless. We used reel-to-reel tapes at the time, for example.

My advice is to major in something that drives your passion and curiosity, and worry less about preparing for a specific career. Now, parents and others might say you need a “bankable major,” but there are so few bankable majors these days. If you have a broad understanding of the world around you, you’re challenged to think, write, and communicate, work on problems where you are uncertain about the solution, and have global experiences, you’ll be set for a good career. So focus less on the career, and more on what you want to get academically out of a college.

CC: In your book, you include a comprehensive list of colleges that are using real-world experiences to connect life to learning. What was your motivation for putting this list together?

JS: Only a third of students on college campuses these days are what we used to think of as “traditional,” 18 to 24-years old. Yet, eventually all students, whether just out of high school or returning adults, want a job from their college credential. So I was looking for academic experiences that colleges are now offering that connect learning to the real world in interesting ways. One reason students drop out of college is because they aren’t engaged in their studies and don’t immediately recognize real-world connections to what they’re learning in their classes.