Press Release

American Academy of Arts and Sciences Establishes the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education


National commission to undertake data-driven examination of opportunities and challenges in U.S. higher education
Initiative Receives $2.2 Million in Funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York

CAMBRIDGE, MA | NOVEMBER 4, 2015 – The American Academy of Arts and Sciences today announced the formation of The Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. Over the next three years, the members of this initiative will examine the vast—and expanding—array of learning options available to high-school graduates, including both students newly out of high school and older adults returning to school to further their lives and careers. With members drawn from among national leaders in education, business, and government, the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education will study how well today’s students are served by the existing system and, more important, will seek to identify the challenges and opportunities that higher education will encounter in the decades ahead.

Historically, America’s world-leading investments in schools and colleges have been vital to the strength of its economy and society as well as to its tradition of widespread economic opportunity. The Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education will offer recommendations aimed at ensuring that higher education will build on those historic strengths and respond effectively to the demographic, technological, financial, and other developments that lie ahead.

Today, about two-thirds of U.S. high-school graduates begin some form of higher education within 18 months of graduation; at the same time, over one-third of undergraduate students are older adults returning to school to resume their education. At any given time, some 17 million Americans are enrolled at least part-time in some form of postsecondary learning. These students confront an array of alternatives that range from short-term vocational training at for-profit and community colleges to the educations offered to a small number of students at highly selective research universities and liberal-arts colleges. Innovations that range from MOOCs and other forms of online learning to “competency-based” education and a renewed interest in apprenticeships continually expand the range of options.

Despite this array of options and the fact that college enrollment is near an historic high, more than half of all students fail to complete their educational programs. There are widespread worries about the cost of college and the burden of indebtedness, and doubts in many quarters that colleges are prepared to take advantage of emerging technical opportunities to teach better at a lower cost. Perhaps most worrisome, for all the progress in increasing access to college, the gaps in college completion rates by race and by income level continue to grow.

As an initial step in understanding the system and working to improve it, the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education has convened an advisory group of economists and other experts to curate the available data in order to create a portrait of how Americans are currently receiving their postsecondary education, and to identify the trends. Using this portrait, the commission will identify both problems and promise inherent in those trends. The commission will also use the curated research to develop a working hypothesis about what the United States will look like if those trends persist, and recommend corresponding changes to benefit students.

“Higher education remains one of the most important avenues of opportunity in our society, and yet it is at an inflection point,” said American Academy President Jonathan F. Fanton. “The Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education will work in pursuit of greater understanding of the preparation that Americans of all backgrounds will need to lead productive and fulfilling lives that contribute to the health of our country, its economy, culture, and democratic community.”

The Academy has received $2.2 million from Carnegie Corporation of New York for this three-year initiative. Spencer Foundation President Michael S. McPherson and TIAA-CREF President and CEO Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. will co-chair the commission.

“The critical issues in this area—cost, financing models, accessibility, dramatic changes in learning patterns and in technological possibilities—require our attention and close scrutiny, on behalf of all Americans,” McPherson said. “Just as high-quality research is the bedrock of improvement in education, so will it undergird the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education.” Ferguson added: “Our work will be guided by our data-driven examination of the existing landscape of higher education, and by partnerships with colleagues who are conducting new research. We will use these inputs to foster an open, highly informed national discourse on projected trends—and on changes that will help maximize access, outcomes, and personal fulfillment for all students.”

In addition to McPherson and Ferguson, members (to date) of the commission include Joseph E. Aoun, President, Northeastern University; Deborah Loewenberg Ball, Dean, University of Michigan School of Education; Sandy Baum, Senior Fellow, the Urban Institute; Rebecca M. Blank, Chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Madison; John Seely Brown, former director, Xerox PARC research; Carl A. Cohn, Clinical Professor of Education, Claremont Graduate University; Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr., President, Purdue University; John J. DeGioia, President, Georgetown University; Jonathan F. Fanton, President, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Robert Hormats, Vice Chairman, Kissinger Associates, and former Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment; Freeman A. Hrabowski III, President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Jennifer L. Jennings, Professor of Sociology, New York University; Jeremy Johnson, Co-Founder and CEO, Andela; Daphne Koller, President and Co-Founder, Coursera, Inc., and Professor, Stanford University; Sherry Lansing, Founder and CEO, Sherry Lansing Foundation; Nicholas Lemann, Professor and former Dean, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; J. Michael Locke, former CEO, Rasmussen, Inc.; Gail O. Mellow, President, LaGuardia Community College; Diana Natalicio, President, University of Texas at El Paso; Hilary Pennington, Vice President, Ford Foundation; Beverly Daniel Tatum, former President, Spelman College; Shirley M. Tilghman, former President, Princeton University; P. Roy Vagelos, former President, CEO, and Chairman, Merck; and Michelle Weise, Executive Director, Sandbox ColLABorative, Southern New Hampshire University.

“Because of its independent, nonpartisan, and multidisciplinary approach to issues like these, the American Academy is the right home for the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education,” added Don Randel, Chair of the Board of the Academy and President Emeritus of the University of Chicago. “This is the Academy’s tradition: to convene experts from a range of fields to make insightful recommendations—and, in turn, inspire dialogue and effect change.” Examples of Academy reports in this tradition include The Heart of the Matter, which has made a powerful case for the importance of the humanities and social sciences; Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream, with its recommendations for the long-term sustainability of the science and engineering research system; and The Lincoln Project: Excellence and Access in Public Higher Education, which is offering substantive policy recommendations for advancing the growth of public research universities, for the benefit of the states they serve and the nation as a whole.

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences ( is one of the country’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers, convening leaders from the academic, business, and government sectors to respond to the challenges facing the nation and the world. Current Academy research focuses on higher education, the humanities, and the arts; science and technology policy; global security and energy; and American institutions and the public good. The Academy’s work is advanced by its more than 5,000 elected members, who are leaders, from around the nation and the world, in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs.




Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education

Roger W. Ferguson and Michael S. McPherson