Following four national priorities, including increasing completion rates and strengthening the student educational experience, could exponentially improve the future of higher education, according to a report based on two years of research.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, with funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York, convened the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education (CFUE), comprised of leaders from higher education, philanthropy, business, and government. The Commissioners were charged with assessing the state of undergraduate education and making recommendations for a future with better institutions and better-positioned graduates.
The report, The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America, zeroes in on four national priorities that offer actionable solutions to improve undergraduate education and increase the number of students who complete their education without unmanageable debt, said said CFUE Co-chair Roger W. Ferguson, Jr., president and CEO of TIAA.
“These very practical recommendations build on the strengths of our students and schools, and on a shared vision for the future of our country,” said Commissioner Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College, part of The City University of New York (CUNY). “To support both economic opportunity and a strong democracy, we must invest in higher education as it’s an effective and proven way to boost both.”
(Next page: Four focus areas to improve higher education for students)
When it comes to strengthening the student educational experience, the report recommends ensuring that all students, no matter their program of study, have high-quality educational experiences that prepare them for success in the 21st century. This can be accomplished by:
- Recognizing the challenges associated with greater numbers of short-term, nontenure instructors, any effort to improve undergraduate teaching and learning will require providing nontenure-track faculty with stable professional working environments and careers.
- All college credentials—certificates and associate’s and bachelor’s degrees—should incorporate academic, career, and civic knowledge and skills as a foundation for rewarding and productive lives and careers.
- Developing more reliable measures of student learning gains, because knowing what students have learned and can do is a critically important measure of college value.
In order to increase completion and reduce inequities, colleges and universities, businesses, community-based organizations, and state and federal governments all have a role to play in this massive endeavor:
- College and university leadership must make completion a top institutional priority.
- Expand experimentation with and research on guided pathways designs, which already help many institutions increase completion and reduce time-to-degree and excess credits.
- Work toward a new national understanding of and approach to student transfer undergirded by an openness to evaluating, recognizing, and applying college-level learning that takes place at multiple institutions through various models.
The report’s third priority is to control costs and increase affordability through policy changes via:
- Federal efforts, including simplifying or eliminating the FAFSA application process and updating the Pell grant program.
- State efforts, such as directing scarce resources to the students for whom they will have the greatest impact, or ensuring state-run aid programs prioritize meeting the financial needs of highly disadvantaged students.
- Institutional efforts, including investing in providing students with consistently good teaching, and building governance practices that support cost-saving innovation.
The fourth priority focuses more on a set of research questions that can guide continued work around a stronger and more affordable undergraduate education, including a focus on embracing diversity; how automation and technological advances could influence the workforce and undergraduate programs designed around that workforce; and how data, information, and digitization impact the way instructors and students use resources available to them.
“Completion rates are problematic, and even worse when we recognize that they exacerbate inequities, but it would be wrong to focus exclusively on obtaining the credential,” said CFUE Cochair Michael McPherson, formerly of the Spencer Foundation and president emeritus of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. “The value of completion is inextricably linked to the quality of the educational experience. Our recommendations include increasing training for college teaching, supporting the integration of data and counseling, providing non-tenure track faculty with stable professional careers, and employing reliable measures of student learning. Our goal, which is essential and ambitious, is to raise both rates of completion and the value of the degrees obtained.”
The report’s recommendations targeting affordability include restructuring the Pell system to support timely completion of credentials, establishing a single income-driven repayment plan to simplify college borrowing and limit the need for future debt forgiveness, creating a tracking system for students to make aid contingent upon satisfactory academic progress, and more strictly regulating institutional eligibility for federal financial aid to support student success.