Some members of this Commission have a deep knowledge of one or another piece of the higher education landscape—perhaps public or private research universities, or community colleges, or institutions with large online or competency-based delivery systems. Others brought perspectives on undergraduate education from other walks of life—business, technology, journalism, and public affairs. But none of us, even the few who study higher education for a living, had the full picture of this complex and ever-changing mosaic. And we still don’t. This is a system that will not sit still with its millions of diverse students, thousands of institutions, and continual adoption of technological and organizational innovations as society’s needs for education evolve in a changing global economic and political context. Our collective learning and analysis have left us with a sober sense of the great challenges ahead for undergraduate education—intellectual, financial, and ethical—and much of this report aims at clarifying their nature and scope and proposing effective responses to them. Most of all though, as we complete this stage of our work, we come away hopeful.
There is a long-standing debate about whether undergraduate education is a private good, serving the needs of individuals, or a public good, meeting larger civic and community needs. The answer, we are convinced, is that undergraduate education is both a public and a private good. Those who invest in an education are consistently rewarded with higher earnings and more stable employment—important private benefits. The earnings advantage for college graduates, on the average, has in recent decades been higher than ever before. Expanding the numbers of degree and certificate holders helps individuals and also honors America’s self-understanding as a nation of economic opportunity and strengthens our democracy. Our primary goal in writing this report, therefore, has been to help guide the next stage in the evolution of American undergraduate education, in which all students can afford, complete, and enjoy the benefits of the education they seek when they enroll, an education that truly prepares them for life in the 21st century. Beyond the benefits to individuals, though, we also know that more educated communities are more prosperous and have a richer civic life—real public benefits of undergraduate education.
As we have explored these benefits more deeply, we have come to identify a more profound role that undergraduate education can and indeed must play for the sake of our nation’s future. We are a nation polarized—by race, by class, by political and religious convictions, and in other ways. We must, even as we acknowledge and respect difference, find opportunities to knit people and communities together on terms of equality and mutual respect. This is not a problem undergraduate education can “solve,” but colleges and universities are among the few American institutions in which significant numbers of people from different backgrounds and communities come together for a shared purpose. At this juncture, our divisions sometimes produce painful and risky confrontations, but they also, less visibly, create opportunities to build relationships and further mutual understanding. This is, in our view, a core component of education and a crucial need for our civic and political future.
We face huge challenges. Yet the reasons for optimism are real. Our remarkably large set of colleges and universities has a greater reach across our population than ever before. For all the challenges and tensions evident on many of today’s campuses, we must remember that the long-run trend on campuses has been toward more diversity and inclusion. We harbor no doubts about the value and benefits of a quality college education—it delivers on its promises of greater individual and social prosperity. We are hopeful because more and more colleges are learning how to help students succeed in moving to complete their programs and are developing effective practices that other colleges can emulate. And we are hopeful because there are real financial changes and technological opportunities that, if enacted smartly, can further facilitate student success. Progress is not guaranteed, and good things will happen only with sustained effort, but if we can sustain focus on the work, combining patience with urgency, we can, through undergraduate education, make great advances as individuals and as a nation.