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Seeing the Forest Through the Trees in Breakpoint

The EvoLLLution | Seeing the Forest Through the Trees in Breakpoint
Without defining a specific understanding of student need, and without a specific vision of the institution and its place in the market, institutions will not be successful over the long term.

This is a review of Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education by Jon McGee (Johns Hopkins Press, 2015).

Academics love to ponder big complex issues. We write about and speak of many issues, though college conversations diverge as our attention and passion are directed by discipline. There is a pressing subject however that merits our collective attention: the future of higher education.

This topic is not only of interest to those who work in higher education but one that has drawn the attention of the broader public. Many have shared their views in countless articles and books on the subject. Jon McGee’s Breakpoint is a welcome and reasoned addition to this growing body of literature.

A college insider, Jon McGee is a Vice President of Planning and Public Affairs at The College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, a private Catholic institution in the Midwest. In this role he has likely been heavily engaged in crafting responses to the numerous external threats facing higher ed. In this book, he does not pretend to speak for all institutions but aims at the common ground shared by a wide diverse set of private and public colleges and universities. He also worked in a state budget office, where he learned the valuable lesson that, “budget decision making mostly boiled down to the management of constraints.” He also shares that he is a parent, so the cost of college is a reality for his family. Significantly, his perspective and real world experience ground his observations and qualify him to offer advice on the topic.

Throughout the book, McGee provides a sober and pragmatic insider’s assessment of the very serious challenges confronting higher education in what he dubs “our liminal moment.” A manageable 143 pages of text, Breakpoint is a highly readable book. It forgoes defensive or nostalgic responses. It also avoids dire doomsday scenarios. While the title sounds dramatic, Breakpoint refers to “a point at which to make a change,” which seems apropos.

The book begins with an overview of where we are today. McGee notes that economic factors are the central force reshaping higher ed and adds that there are five key “independent and interdependent” issues that constitute the new higher ed landscape: accessibility, affordability, accountability, sustainability, and differentiation.

Much of the story around how and why we got where we are today is, by now, a familiar tale. Many of us have sat through PowerPoint narratives on the state of higher ed with similar data and bullet points. The first part of the book is rich with data and offers a good overview for those who need a better understanding of the big picture. Even for those who are acquainted with the key forces at play, McGee offers strong talking points and new perspectives on familiar topics. For example, he makes the case that the student debt issue has been misrepresented, as “the vast majority of student borrowers manage their debt.” The detailed section on demographics stresses the shifts that are so critical to understanding today’s marketplace. Competition from for-profit institutions is not discussed, and thought it doesn’t pose the level of threat some had predicted a few years back, there are permutations emerging in that area which should not be ignored. McGee discusses technology but does not overemphasize its role in the creation of the problem or the implementation of a solution.

People who work in higher education, the target audience for this book, are seeking advice on and solutions to many problems we share. And here McGee’s book stands apart from the direr books offered on the subject. It starts with the confluence of the threats confronting higher education, but does not move into “the end is near” despair. McGee sketches out a rough plan of action without the specificity that needs to be filled in by individual readers and institutions. Spoiler alert: the answers are not all here. If it only were that simple.

Perhaps the key takeaway is the sage advice that we need to better know who are our students, who we are, and we need to know our place in the market. Colleges need a more “granular understanding” of themselves. This seems simple, but it requires deep institutional self-reflection and a refinement of how that gets reflected in the branding of the institution.

Though the issues we face are pressing, we are often too consumed with day-to-day obligations to focus on the future in a pragmatic proactive way. And while many in academia have an aversion to what are perceived as crass discussions of the “changing marketplace for higher education, ” the reality is market- based discussions are critical and don’t preclude either the academic nature of what we do, nor the “transformational” part of the college experience. And as institutions balance important responsibilities, McGee repeatedly reminds us of the need to focus on the distinctive qualities of an institution, on what makes a specific place attractive to a changing student demographic.

Midway through the book, McGee uses the success of Apple to illustrate the “imperative for meaningful differentiation.” He recalls Apple again at the end of the book and distills his recommendations for readers and institutions into two words: “Think different.”

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