Priorities for Undergraduate Education in America: Improving Quality, Affordability, and Completion Rates

Career Climbers / 5th December 2017

One of the great success stories of education in America is access. In the nineteenth century, the United States established local, public schools for young children. In the first half of the twentieth century, high school became a universal experience for young adults. And in the second half of the twentieth century, colleges and universities expanded and accepted more students of all ages and backgrounds. Today, almost 90 percent of high school graduates can expect to enroll in an undergraduate institution at some point during their young adulthood and they are joined by millions of adults seeking to improve their lives.

There is, however, significant work to be done to create a nation in which more Americans obtain an excellent undergraduate education and a meaningful degree without taking on onerous debt. By one measure, only 60 percent earn a bachelor’s degree over six years and not even 30 percent attain a certificate or associate degree within three years. More students are borrowing more while not enough attention is being paid to the quality and value of the education itself. As a result, too many Americans will not realize the full benefits of college, which include greater civic engagement and improved personal and family well-being, in addition to better economic circumstances.

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. Over the course of two years, they met with students and faculty members, scores of experts, state and federal policymakers, and foundations and produced an initial primer on the state of educationfour in-depth research papers, and a final report released today: The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America.

“The American Academy is committed to independent nonpartisan research and advancing the public good. In this tradition, our report envisions a future in which all students—traditional and non-traditional, full time and part time, young and old—can afford, complete, and enjoy the benefits of the education they seek,” said Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy and a member of the Commission. “We recognize that the strengths of our undergraduate institutions affect the health of our democracy, the vibrancy of our economy, and the vitality of our society.”

“Our report proposes practical and actionable solutions for improving undergraduate education and for increasing the number of students who complete their education with valuable knowledge and free from unmanageable debt,” said CFUE Cochair Roger W. Ferguson, Jr., President and CEO of TIAA. “Our proposals are grounded in the firm conviction that every person, from every background, has the potential for success – and that they can achieve it with the proper training and preparation.”

“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. “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.

“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.”

Improving the nation’s universities, colleges, and certificate programs is also the most direct way to support the national economy.

“The key to prosperity for America will be higher quality undergraduate education that reduces the growing gap between workforce skills and what we need for economic growth,” said Commissioner Wes Bush, who is chairman, chief executive officer, and president of Northrop Grumman Corporation. “Preparing people for the workplace of today and the future means providing them with academic fundamentals, critical thinking abilities, cognitive flexibility, and communication and leadership skills. It will be better for employees, employers, and the economy if, and when, more Americans gain these skills by completing high-quality undergraduate education.”

The final chapter of the report contemplates a future in which students may contend with significant changes in social cohesion, the workforce, the use of Big Data, and global challenges. No matter what the future holds, the Commission believes college graduates in every field need to master a blend of academic, practical, and civic skills which include problem-solving, critical and creative thinking, and a disposition toward lifelong learning. The Commission envisions that colleges and universities – whether they are physical or virtual – will continue to play a large and constructive role in supporting a resilient society and educated workforce.

More information about the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, and the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York is available on the Commission’s page. 

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