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The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America

Introduction

Our nation’s effort over two centuries to provide education to everyone who lives and works within the United States is an expression of a core belief, one that has survived a long history of challenges: that all people, through learning, can achieve higher goals for themselves and for society as a whole.

Progress toward universal education in the United States has been slow and difficult, but the trend over time has been toward greater access and greater opportunity for more people of different regions and backgrounds. In the nineteenth century, the United States established local, public “common 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 in size and number, as well as in academic offerings, to introduce more students of all ages and backgrounds to the kinds of opportunities once reserved only for a social and economic elite.

Our challenge today is to help the nation’s extraordinary institutions of higher education work more effectively and efficiently for students in the twenty-first century. What was once a challenge of quantity in American undergraduate education, of enrolling as many students as possible, is increasingly a challenge of educational quality—of making sure that all students receive the education they need to succeed, that they are able to complete the studies they begin, and that they can do all of this affordably, without mortgaging the very future they seek to improve. The breadth and diversity of today’s undergraduate population represent a great national achievement, but only if we can ensure that all students receive the rigorous knowledge and preparation they seek when they enroll—the education they need to succeed in their personal, professional, and civic lives. This is, in fact, a critical test for the American commitment to education, as the decades-long effort to welcome more students from different backgrounds, and to accommodate a more varied set of student expectations, has been so successful that colleges and universities, policy-makers, business and philanthropy leaders, and students and their families are now compelled to adjust to this next national challenge.

Almost 90 percent of high school graduates can expect to enroll in an undergraduate institution at some point during their young adulthood, and smaller percentages continue their education through career and technical schools, apprenticeships, work-based training programs, and other alternatives.1 Every fall, over 17 million students of all ages and backgrounds enroll at approximately 4,700 colleges and universities, attending either in-person or virtually, to earn an ever-widening array of certificates and associate’s and baccalaureate degrees. Eighty percent enroll in the nation’s public community colleges and state universities, while others attend a diversity of private nonprofit and for-profit institutions (see Figure A below). About one-third of enrolled students are over 25 years old, and almost 40 percent are enrolled on a part-time basis.2

Figure A: Enrollment Rates for Undergraduates by
Age and Type of Institution

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, Table 303.50, “Total Fall Enrollment in Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions, by Level of Enrollment, Control and Level of Institution, Attendance Status, and Age of Student: 2013,” https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d14/tables/dt14_303.50.asp?current=yes; and National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, Table 303.70, “Total Undergraduate Fall Enrollment in Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions, by Attendance Status, Sex of Student, and Control and Level of Institution: Selected Years, 1970 through 2025,” https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d15/tables/dt15_303.70.asp?current=yes.

Their motivations are varied, perhaps even unique to each individual, but in aggregate Americans are looking to undergraduate education to help them navigate a time of accelerated demographic, technological, and political change.

  • They find themselves living in a nation that is increasingly heterogeneous. In today’s public discourse, diversity is often reduced to the prediction that, by 2040, there will be no racial or ethnic majority in the United States.3 But the diversification of America can be described and documented in other ways, across aspects of religious belief, gender, language, political affiliation, and regional identification, to name a few. In every case, the public face of America has changed dramatically over the last few decades, and every American can now expect to come into contact with histories and worldviews quite different from their own, on a more regular basis. The development of an increasingly interconnected global economy will only reinforce this sense of profound ethnic, cultural, and linguistic change.
  • Workers of the future can also expect to change occupations and careers several times and may even end up in jobs and industries that do not now exist. While it is impossible to predict future work trends with great accuracy, emerging technologies will continue to replace routine functions across many job categories at all levels, even as they create new opportunities for workers in hundreds of fields, including medicine and healthcare, manufacturing, and communications. These challenges will be amplified by the increasing competitiveness of other nations within the global economy, including the diversifying skill sets of foreign workers.
  • And democratic governance will become much more complicated as a result of these demographic and technological changes. Engaged citizens already require real scientific and technological understanding—as well as a working knowledge of history, economics, civics, and the arts—in order to make informed policy decisions. They also need a set of sophisticated critical thinking skills in order to navigate a media landscape that includes the rapid exchange of information, often at the expense of careful analysis and reasoned debate, and in which fact and fiction are not easily distinguishable. Perhaps most important of all, they need institutions that welcome and protect a robust but respectful exchange of ideas as the basis of all innovation and the very essence of a democracy.

Our educational institutions can and must provide, at scale, the knowledge and skills that are required to help every American make sense of and thrive in a future society that will be even more diverse, technological, and complicated than the present. The pressures on our colleges and universities are particularly acute. A growing proportion of American occupations will require college credentials at the baccalaureate, associate’s, and certificate levels because jobs will depend upon increasingly technical bodies of knowledge or because the more general skills and experiences that undergraduate education provides—scientific and civic understanding, critical thinking and “soft skills,” clarity of thought and expression, and the ability to work in teams—will be considered more desirable in every field and profession. A college education also correlates to a host of other outcomes that most Americans find desirable. College graduates enjoy more time spent with their families and prove to be more active in their communities as volunteers. The voting rate among college graduates is nearly twice as high as the rate for high school graduates.4 They tend to exercise more and report better health through the course of their lives. College graduates report having more interesting and rewarding work than nongraduates.5 And the economic benefits associated with a college degree are clear: on average, college graduates earn approximately $1 million more than high school graduates.6 Part of this difference is due to college graduates’ higher employment rates: for example, in 2016, the unemployment rate for high school graduates was 5.2 percent compared to only 2.7 percent for bachelor’s degree holders and 3.6 percent for associate’s degree holders.7

But to realize the full benefits of an undergraduate education, students must be able to complete their degrees. Our undergraduate institutions, as a whole, are more successful in enrolling students than they are in graduating them. By one measure, only about 60 percent of students who pursue a bachelor’s degree actually complete one. Similarly, only about 30 percent who pursue a certificate or associate’s degree ever earn the credentials they seek. In addition, completion rates, when analyzed by gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, are troublingly unequal. Women complete at higher rates than men, White and Asian students complete at higher rates than Black and Hispanic students, and high-income students complete at higher rates than their low-income peers. Students who attend part-time, mostly working adults and parents, complete at much lower rates than those who attend full-time. And students from rural areas of the country lag behind their urban peers. These disparities mirror and reinforce other social inequities, and are an obstacle to social progress. They also represent a significant challenge to an education system that has long prioritized the expansion of access, especially when many who enroll but do not graduate are unable to repay student loan debt and are, therefore, worse off financially than when they started. True equity requires that students from all backgrounds have an opportunity to receive a quality, affordable education and that they can complete their degrees in a reasonable period of time.

The United States now ranks 11th among the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in the percentage of its 25- to 34-year-olds who hold an associate’s degree or higher. Less than half (46.5 percent) of all Americans in this age group hold a degree, compared with 69 percent in South Korea and 59 percent in Canada.8 There are many reasons for these differences, including the social, economic, historical, and geographic challenges of serving a nation as large and diverse as the United States. There are also many reasons why an American student might postpone or cease their pursuit of a degree. Indeed, there is no single model for a successful undergraduate experience, and the diversity of educational pathways is a particular strength of the American approach. Nevertheless, now that most high school students have access to some college option, the nation’s future success—in business and civic life, at home and abroad—depends on its ability to realize the untapped potential of the many students who begin but do not complete their undergraduate education. The completion of a few college courses is not a sufficient education in the twenty-first century.

Among the primary obstacles to completion for many students is the sheer cost of an undergraduate degree. Close to 60 percent of all college graduates take out loans averaging a total debt of $20,000 per student—approximately the cost of a brand-new economy car. But the problem of student debt is far more serious for students who drop out than for students who graduate. While 9 percent of college graduates default on their loans, the default rate among students who do not complete their degrees is almost 25 percent. Although the public discourse tends to focus on the most extreme examples of burdensome student debt, the larger issues reside with students who take out relatively smaller loan amounts but never earn a credential.

Every sector bears some responsibility for addressing these challenges, and the entire nation needs to begin a new conversation about how to distribute the responsibility for undergraduate education. Institutions need to devote far more attention to and support for the quality of teaching and the teaching workforce and become more purposeful, effective, and efficient—reengineering their systems to focus on student completion. At the same time, government agencies need to focus their sights on students and communities in real need. And the private sector, including philanthropies, can help to advance these goals through a variety of partnerships and approaches to assist undergraduate institutions as they adjust to a growing and shifting student population.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences organized its Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education to take a broad view of undergraduate education in all of its manifestations and to recommend ways to ensure that students in every program and institution receive the education they need to succeed in the twenty-first century. In this final report, the Commission offers a comprehensive national strategy encompassing three broad recommendations to achieve this goal:

  1. Ensure that all students have high-quality educational experiences.
  2. Increase overall completion rates and reduce inequities among different student populations at every level of undergraduate education.
  3. Manage college costs and improve the affordability of undergraduate education.

Action on these recommendations can and should begin soon, and many will take 10–20 years before they are realized. The fourth and final section of the report takes a more speculative approach, looking to a further future through the lenses of several factors—each plausible and pertinent to the Commission’s principal goals of quality, completion, and affordability—which could move in very different directions: our country’s level of social cohesion; the characteristics of the workforce; the level of access to information and educational technologies; and unforeseen natural or human-generated global challenges. The report ends by offering priority research areas to advance the work toward a strengthened and more affordable undergraduate education for a greater share of Americans.

In developing this report, the Commission drew upon a vast array of innovative and important practices, policies, and studies underway across the country, as well as successful projects at every level of undergraduate education. Throughout the report, promising practices are highlighted either in green or included under a green “Promising Practice” banner. Additional promising practices may be found at www.amacad.org/cfue. It assembled evidence supporting the notion that undergraduate education institutions in every sector can achieve meaningful progress as long as they focus on quality and completion as primary goals, limit costs and obstacles in the pursuit of these goals, and partner with other entities to create new efficiencies, share best practices, and build economies of scale.

In time, as teaching methodologies evolve and delivery systems become less expensive and easier to manage, digital technologies will help expand educational opportunities for all students. Some advances, like the growing use of predictive analytics in student advising, are already changing the way institutions serve their students. But such innovations have been local and slow to spread across the higher education landscape. Taking up the challenges of improved performance cannot wait, however; they must be addressed now or risk failing the talented students of today and tomorrow.

A recent, comprehensive research project on social mobility tracked about 30 million college students, charting the percentage from lower-income families who then moved up the income distribution by their early 30s. Among its many findings, the study reveals that open access colleges and universities serve as major catalysts propelling low-income students into middle-class lives. But it also suggests that American institutions of higher education are not meeting their potential.9

Our nation’s investment in education has always implied a compact among the generations, in which each generation has accepted some responsibility for the success of the next. That sustained effort, over 200 years, has resulted in the network of colleges and universities that is among the most significant contributors to America’s intellectual and economic strength, the engines that drive the American Dream. Some historians even suggest that America’s rise as an economic power, beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through the 1960s, can be traced to the rapid growth of educational opportunity in the United States, including the expansion of undergraduate education, in contrast to the more gradual broadening of educational opportunity in Europe.10 We now have the potential to provide every American with an undergraduate degree, but over the past 30 years, the generational compact has weakened, investments have been reduced, and the rate of attainment lags behind our nation’s needs.

To better understand the scope of the investments required to reverse this course, and to help measure the benefits of renewed investment, the Commission engaged a leading economic consulting firm, Moody’s Analytics. Their analysis indicates that an ambitious yet achievable improvement in college completion rates would require substantial investments over a decade and more, but the longer-term effect on the economy would be a significant improvement in the productivity of the American economy and a resultant gain in the nation’s standard of living.11 One model, based on a 20-year projection, forecasts an annual growth in GDP that is nearly 10 percent higher than it would be without the program—an increase large enough to repay initial investments and continue to grow the economy. While the analysis focuses on the economic side of this development, there is every reason to believe that an investment in students would yield other, less easily quantified returns as well, including gains such as greater intercultural understanding, increased civic participation leading to a stronger democracy, and more rewarding lives for graduates. In the same way that the nation must reinvest in its physical infrastructure—roads, bridges, railways, and so on—as a stimulus for communication and commerce of all kinds, the United States should commit to a comparable reinvestment in our existing educational infrastructure, including undergraduate education, in order to realize the productive potential of all Americans.

Ultimately, the future success of the nation will depend on its citizens’ level of commitment to a revised, inclusive ideal of an educated society in which every member is well-prepared to succeed and thrive. The national strategy the Commission recommends certainly requires some sacrifices, including sensible investments to assist students in need and to encourage a more concerted national effort to share, adopt, and bring to scale successful programs and best practices that enhance the student experience and spread the benefits of innovation more equitably across the nation. But the costs of such a strategy are far outweighed by the benefits to individual students, to local communities, to the nation, and to the world.