New View EDU Episode 29: The Future of Higher Ed

Available November 8

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Much of the work of K-12 schools is focused on getting students to the “next step,” which, for many of them, is college readiness. But increasingly, it feels like we’re not working on college readiness so much as we’re working on college admissions. Preparing kids to successfully apply to college, in the hypercompetitive admissions landscape, is almost a full-time job of its own. What should schools be doing to help students with college (and college application) readiness? When we focus on gaining admission to selective schools, what are we missing in the K-12 experience? And what do colleges actually want K-12 educators to know?

Jeff Selingo and Adam WeinbergTo answer these questions, higher education experts Jeff Selingo (left) and Adam Weinberg (right) join host Tim Fish for a candid conversation about the admissions race, life on campus, and what “college readiness” actually means. Jeff is a bestselling author whose most recent book, Who Gets In and Why, was named among the most notable books of 2020 by The New York Times. Adam is the 20th president of Denison University, and his tenure has focused on issues like affordability, curricular innovation, and closing the college-to-career gap. Together, they bring a wealth of knowledge and insights into the world of higher education.

While K-12 educators and families often focus on college readiness, Adam and Jeff bring the perspective that college itself is just another step in preparing to become the “architect” of one’s own life. They argue that approaching college as a transactional experience—just a stepping stone or training ground in preparation for a career—dilutes the value of what higher education can offer. Meaningful interactions with faculty and staff, learning to live with other students whose backgrounds and beliefs may be radically different from one’s own, and taking chances with course choices, clubs, and activities are all part of stepping away from high school and toward a rewarding adulthood. Adam points out that college may be the first opportunity many high-achieving students have to experience a real failure; having that experience, and knowing how to turn it into a growth opportunity, is a pivotal moment all young people need.

But how “safe” is the idea of failure for a K-12 student, given the high stakes of college admissions? Jeff and Adam agree that the current process has created an artificial expectation, resulting in the mindset that there may only be a few narrowly defined paths that lead to acceptance into a good college. Carefully curated résumés of sports and leadership activities, “rigor” as defined by AP coursework, and a formulaic approach to choosing majors and writing essays have overtaken the ability of students to know themselves and demonstrate who they are as individuals in a crowded field of similar applicants. Yet, Jeff says, individuality is exactly what admissions officers are looking for. He and Adam agree that the admissions race causes high-potential students to take fewer risks, stick more closely to activities and experiences that are “proven” to look good on applications, and often, to overlook colleges and universities where they might thrive, in favor of applying to the “most selective” schools they can think of regardless of social and academic fit.

What can colleges and K-12 schools do to change these patterns and help students develop more of their personal potential? Adam points first to a focus on well-being, at all levels of education and throughout life. Good personal habits, emotional flexibility, and resilience are foundational to both learning and to life beyond the classroom. Jeff adds that purpose and belonging are also critical to the success of a student on campus, leading to a discussion of ways the high school experience and the freshman year of college could be changed to better prepare students for the leap. 

Choice, flexibility, affordability, discourse and debate, and 21st-century skills are among the trends—and urgent needs—Jeff and Adam identify for the future of higher education. And these trends aren’t just isolated to what happens on college campuses or in the workforce. They’re needs that K-12 schools can, and should, also be addressing, to help students develop college and career readiness.

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim, Jeff, and Adam explore in this episode include:
  • What’s the purpose of a residential college experience in this day and age, and how can it be truly transformational for students?
  • What are colleges actually seeking in students during the admissions process, and how does the current process help or hinder them in finding it? What could be done differently on both the K-12 and higher ed sides?
  • How can students be better prepared for the reality of the transition from high school to college? What does it look like to focus on student well-being, resilience, and growth mindset in a generation of students who may struggle in all of those areas?
  • What are the trends in higher education that schools should be aware of? How does technology play a role in transforming higher ed, and how might student choice and flexibility of access change the way colleges structure their programs?

Episode Highlights

  • “Great, life-transforming education is deeply relational. It just is. And that's about first and foremost having the opportunity to connect with faculty members who will serve not just as great educators but as real mentors. From my perspective, the single biggest predictor on whether higher education, a college experience, will be life-transforming, is does a student develop a deep, enduring mentoring relationship with a faculty member or staff member?” (5:39)
  • “More selective institutions like Denison and others that are really trying to decide between applicants. They're looking for that difference. They cherish what is rare. And increasingly, to be honest with you, what is rare are those students who are not over-curated, over-programmed. I feel like, especially because of social media now, we have to curate our lives to be perfect. And we see this manifest itself in applications.” (11:41)
  • “I think there's so much about the college application process that—forces is too strong a word—that shapes the high school experience of too many students, where they're not able to do either one of those, right? They're not able to ask who they want to be because they're too busy asking, ‘What do I need to be to get into the college of my choice?’ And the second is, we're so worried that if they experience any bit of failure, they won't get into a good college, that we're not giving them the space to learn that actually failure's the only way to develop the kind of resiliency you're going to need to be successful in life.” (17:41)
  • “ I think this is where advising comes in and helping students understand—and maybe this is where there's a role for K through 12—because I think every student should graduate from high school understanding what kind of learner they are. So that when they do go to college, they're making those better choices. You know, am I a better visual learner? You know, how do I read, you know, should I do online? Should I do hybrid, whatever it might be, so that when they get to college, they're making those choices in a better way.” (33:00)
  • “I think one thing that we could be and should be doing with students during their junior, senior years, at least level-setting expectations so they don't arrive at college assuming that everything's going to be perfect and they're going to be happy all the time. Helping them understand that college is hard, everything about it is hard…those struggles are normal. They're part of the process by design. And it's those moments that are going to be some of the most valuable of your first year. And don't make the mistake when you're having that moment of unhappiness, that moment of not-sure-you-can-make-it, of looking around and assuming that everybody else is doing great and you're not.” (35:28)
  •  “This may be our last chance, or one of our last chances, where we have a community of people, similar in age, together in one place. And we should be preparing them, K through 12 and higher ed, for that moment afterward, where they are going to be in communities, at school board meetings, in community associations, and volunteer organizations. And they're going to have to have these very tough debates, and they're going to have to do it in person using those facts.” (43:35)

Resource List

Full Transcript

  • Read the full transcript here.

About Our Guests

Jeff Selingo has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September 2020 and was named among the 100 notable books of the year by The New York Times. A regular contributor to The Atlantic, Jeff is a special advisor for innovation and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He also co-hosts the podcast FutureU. He lives in Washington, DC with his family.

Dr. Adam Weinberg joined Denison University as its 20th president on July 1, 2013. He previously served as president and CEO of World Learning, which works with young people from more than 140 countries, helping them develop the ability to address critical global issues. Previously, he was vice president and dean at Colgate University, where he was a member of the sociology department for more than a decade. He also founded a number of organizations, including the Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education (COVE) and the Partnership for Community Development. He studied at Cambridge University before earning his master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from Northwestern University. He has co-authored two books, Urban Recycling and the Search for Sustainable Development and Local Environmental Struggles, and currently is writing a book on the relationship between higher education and civil society.