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At JAA, Rethinking the Idea of a University Education


Bestselling author Mary Higgins Clark, FCLC ’79, was interviewed by Professor Mary Bly at JAA 2014.
Photo by Tom Stoelker

With college tuition rising, MOOCs multiplying, and the traditional college-age demographic shrinking, there’s much public discussion about the future of higher education. On July 14 at Fordham, former Chronicle of Higher Education editor Jeff Selingo told Jesuit advancement administrators that in order to survive in these times, universities must deepen their understanding of what motivates students.

The author of College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) spoke on the subject at the annual Jesuit Advancement Administrators (JAA) conference, held this year on the Fordham campus. The conference is one of the most widely-attended events sponsored by the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU), and this year’s event attracted 270 attendees from 26 Jesuit institutions.

Higher education, he said, is no longer “this box you go to one time in your life.” Universities need to cultivate their potential pool beyond the dated categories of “traditional” and “nontraditional” students.

Selingo cited a consulting firm’s recent study that was based on interviews with 3,200 students about their motivations for going to college. The answers divided them into six segments—young academics, career starters, industry switchers, coming-of-agers, career accelerators, and an older-student segment of adult wanderers.

“I think many colleges are in trouble because too many of them are after only one or two of these segments, and their financial strategy can no longer sustain that,” he said, noting that the “traditional” residential student who goes in at 18 and comes out four years later accounts for only 20 percent of today’s college enrollees. “When you start thinking of students in terms of their motivation—why they are here—it opens up possibilities as to what we should be offering to attract them, keep them, and graduate them.”

Tuition costs have pushed even the middle- and upper-middle class students to consider attending less-pricey institutions like community colleges to save money before switching to a four-year university. He said 23 percent of community college students come from households with an annual income of $100,000 or more.

One of the hottest recent trends, especially for the post-degree lifelong learner, Selingo said, is “just-in-time” education through online sites such as Coursera. Students can delve into a single area of interest, bypassing the process of college applications and pre-requirements and even designing their own curriculum.

Selingo pointed to innovative approaches already underway at some schools, such as the addition of gap years to four-year degree programs, a hybrid curriculum of online and on-campus classes, or programs in which a degree can be earned in less than four years. Students still find value in attending residential colleges because of faculty mentorship, undergraduate research opportunities, and cross-cultural experiences, he said.

The value argument—as opposed to cost—is going to be key going forward. “You have to think about what is a commodity on your campus and what’s truly innovative that you are doing,” he said.

At Jesuit universities, a gap year of doing service, for example, could help distinguish the value of a Jesuit education, he said.

Regardless of changes, Selingo predicted that colleges and universities are going to be required by the next decade to provide more in-depth analyses of what happens to their graduates, not just one or two years out, but 10.

“Anecdotes are great, but they need data as their foundation.”

Selingo’s talk was part of the three-day JAA conference with an agenda that included sessions on development, advancement services, marketing and communications, and alumni relations. Keynotes were delivered by Bill Baker, Ph.D., director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education and Fordham’s Claudio Acquaviva S.J. Chair in Education, and bestselling author Mary Higgins Clark, FCLC ’79.
–Janet Sassi

More coverage on Mary Higgins Clark here, and America magazine editor Matt Malone, S.J., here.

JAA 2014!



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