06/25/2013 02:47 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2013

When the Jobs of Tomorrow Don't Exist Today: Jeff Selingo on College, Liberal Arts, and the Possible Future

Jeff Selingo's new book, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students (New Harvest, 2013), finds the editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education articulating the challenges to contemporary higher education.

Selingo suggests a field on the verge of transformation, or at least modification, by MOOCs, hybrid physical/online courses, alternate certifications, and the generally fast-changing world of the young 21st century.

As a new Associate Dean of the Faculty at my long-time home, Lake Forest College, I wanted to read College Unbound to discern not only what the future might bring, but also what role the liberal arts will play in that future.

College Unbound offers a strong defense of what Lake Forest College and other liberal arts colleges do well. We offer what College Unbound details as important components of quality education -- passionate faculty members; student-centered research projects; transformative global experiences; the support to be creative, take risks, and even fail; and professional and business world acumen developed through the critical thinking skills of the liberal arts experience (in Chapter 9: "The Skills of the Future").

I interviewed Selingo by phone, and I had help, from Vicki Gerentes. A rising senior at Lake Forest, Vicki is a model student. She has worked extensively as a book designer for Lake Forest College Press and she serves as incoming editor of our undergraduate science journal, Eukaryon. She's an English major and Digital Media Design minor. She will participate in our "In the Loop" program next academic year, living on our Chicago campus and working as an intern at a major Chicago publisher.

Vicki is successful because she finds an opportunity and turns it into the next opportunity. I wanted her to hear a conversation in which she is already participating in and will continue to help shape in the future.

Davis: You're not a futurist, are you?

Jeff: No, I am definitely not. I call myself a futurist, but trading in future predictions, as you know, is pretty high risk. So, my goal with this book was to take a look at the landscape....I did not set the goal of outlining exactly what higher education is going to look like in the future, because I didn't write it with one particular student in mind.

I wrote this book for consumers, for students, parents, and guidance counselors, and from the students' perspective, not from the institutional perspective. I wanted them to have that background of what higher education might be like in the future.

Davis: In terms of this possible future, is it fair to say you are enthusiastic about new technologies, while at the same time offering a defense of core liberal arts and humanities?

Jeff: I never thought that I would come out in this direction -- I defend the liberal arts in a way that I didn't think I would. I think that a liberal arts foundation is incredibly important in a day and age when more and more universities, as well as the marketing to students, has essentially moved more towards vocational majors.

At a time when the economy is changing at such a rapid pace -- not to say that training in one subject, even if it's vocational, is not necessary -- a foundation in the liberal arts is more important than ever before. One thing I realized in reporting the book is that the skill sets students develop in the liberal arts are incredibly important to a future world...where the jobs of tomorrow just don't exist today and the jobs of four years from now that everyone's training for, today, might already be gone.

Davis: A higher education administrator I know suggested to me that your recent work has a tendency to accuse liberal arts colleges of "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," rather than doing a type of repositioning that's going to lead to their future success. Are some of these colleges not preparing?

Jeff: No, I think that many of them are doing really good work. The problem is that they're having a hell of a time trying to communicate that value. And really what I think the liberal arts colleges need to focus on is communicating the values that they have and that they give students. And I don't think they should need to do it by anecdote, because they've been very good at that, right?

What I want to know though is about everybody who graduated from the class of 2005, everybody who graduated from the class of 2010. Every year, tell me where students are going, what they're doing, what type of work they're doing? Hey, I'd love if you could tell me their salaries. Tell me that year after year after year, until I can see patterns.

Davis: This will require the increased application of data analytics, which you extensively discuss in College Unbound, in that colleges are already collecting so many data points about students that might be deployed in new ways. At the same time, many humanists (to take my own academic division), recoil as the word "assessment," particularly when they see it as foisted upon them by external accreditation agencies. You argue that we often assess the wrong metrics (time spent in a chair, for example). Yet, is some of this recoil programmed into the cynical humanism that resists external business trends?

Jeff: I'm not a huge fan of the assessment mentality we have in higher education. Let's take technology: you are either for MOOCs or you are against them. There seems to be no real middle ground for people to say, okay, MOOCs may work in a little piece of this course, but face-to-face contact also matters.

So, sure, I think that you can go too far in the assessment game. But how do I know that my son or daughter has learned something in your class? You tell me, "Well, you know, he got an A, he showed up every day, and he was here for 15 weeks. He must have learned something." Yet we want to know that there's value. ... I think assessment plays a role in that, but it shouldn't be the be-all and end-all.

Davis: College Unbound raises important warnings about student debt. Yet a later section suggests that students should attend the most-selective college they can get into. How does this advice square with the earlier warnings about unsustainable student debt?

Jeff: First, this doesn't mean you go simply to a selective college, but to the most selective college you can get into. For some students, that could be a public school. Second, selectivity does matter in terms of completion. ... You have to get a degree at the end of the day. And, if you go to a less-selective college, sometimes your chances of actually finishing college are not very good, because you might have taken on more debt at the same time.

If you go to a more-selective college, that doesn't necessarily mean more expensive for you. At more-expensive colleges, you might be able to get additional financial aid.

Davis: You grew up near Scranton, PA. I grew up near Allentown. I chose the wrong school at first, the Culinary Institute of America, and I dropped out after a semester. I ended up at Penn State, and was very interested to read in the book about the two studies, conducted by Alan B. Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale, examining incomes between graduates of Penn State and University of Pennsylvania (and other colleges), and finding little difference (in Chapter 8: "Degrees of Value").

Jeff: There's not much difference, mainly because Penn State has become a much-more selective school than it was 20 or 30 years ago. ... People, when they think "selective," they think private and expensive. But, everybody has a different selectivity index.

Davis: After Penn State's 1995 Rose Bowl win, students said applicants needed significantly higher SAT scores. What about the role of athletics at some of these big schools as the driver of selectivity? I have a friend on the Penn State faculty who told me that "in typical Penn State fashion," the university had learned absolutely nothing from the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Jeff: You go to a place like Penn State, Michigan, University of Florida...these are major cities. They do everything beyond what you think is important at a university. They are the biggest entertainers in town, whether by athletics, or by theater. At some point, when does this all move beyond providing opportunities for co-curricular activities for students, to become, essentially, about the operation of major-league sports and professional musicals?

Davis: You went to Ithaca College. How did you make that choice and would you do anything differently in a college search, knowing what you know now?

Jeff: I'm a much different person at 18 than I am now. Ithaca played a huge role. ... At Ithaca, I met people from all over the country, from totally different backgrounds. I think back on my college experience, it has less to do with the specific classes I took than all the other opportunities that it offered including the leadership possibilities and leadership development that I got from the student newspaper and through other student activities; the friends for life I met; the mentors on the faculty and other mentors. The classes did me well for the first couple of years, yet now it's about the other intrinsic values that a college degree provides.