Press Release

Data-Rich Report on College Access—Plus Student Readiness & Completion—Released by Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education


CAMBRIDGE, MA | SEPTEMBER 22, 2016 – The Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has released A Primer on the College Student Journey, a publication focused on the pathways that students of various backgrounds follow through the wide range of higher education options that they face.

In A Primer on the College Student Journey, the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education calls attention to: (1) the disparities in educational attainment associated with race and ethnicity, income level, and gender; (2) the fact that more students are borrowing more money to pay for college; and (3) the fact that those students most likely to default are those who do not graduate. At the same time—calling out areas of strength and accomplishment sometimes overshadowed by the afore-mentioned concerns—the primer acknowledges increasingly higher rates of college enrollment across diverse student populations, so that nearly 90 percent of high school graduates eventually spend some time in college. The publication also documents the efforts at inclusiveness on traditional residential campuses as well as the expansion of learning opportunities better suited to the goals and life situations of millions of people who at an earlier time could not realistically consider college as an option.

A related resource—Top 10 Takeaways about Undergraduates—featuring the most significant findings from the report is also available.

With members drawn from among national leaders in education, business, and government, the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education is studying how well students are served by the existing system of American higher education. At the same time, the members of the commission seek to identify the challenges and opportunities that students will encounter in the decades ahead. As an initial step in this work, the commission convened an advisory group of economists and other experts to curate the most up-to-date information and to discern the trends. The result: today’s release of this data-rich portrait of how Americans are currently accessing, paying for, and completing their postsecondary education.

Other key findings from A Primer on the College Student Journey:

  • From the primer’s section on “Getting Ready for College,” approximately one-half of all college students will take one or more developmental or remedial courses while enrolled.
    • See related key facts and figures
  • From the section on “Getting into College,” while college enrollment rate gaps across race and ethnicity are narrowing, gaps based on gender and income level are increasing.
    • See related key facts and figures
  • From the section on “Paying for College,” more students are borrowing to finance their education—and loan amounts are on the rise. However, most undergraduates are not taking on exorbitant debt to pay for college.
    • See related key facts and figures
  • From the section on “Getting Through and Getting Out,” less than half—48 percent—of recently awarded undergraduate credentials were bachelor’s degrees. On average, it takes students five years and ten months to earn a bachelor’s degree. And only 29 percent of students who start a certificate or associate degree at a two-year college earn a credential within 150 percent of the time required to do so.
    • See related key facts and figures

Spencer Foundation President Michael S. McPherson and TIAA-CREF President and CEO Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. co-chair the commission.

“In light of the diversity of our college students, institutions, and academic programs, the primer makes clear that the days of a ‘one size fits all’ undergraduate education are long gone and that a sharp and enduring focus on the students who are here today and who will be coming to college over the next 20 years should guide our way,” said Commission Co-Chair Roger Ferguson. “As we look toward a future of shifting demographics, changing labor force needs, and economic uncertainty, the capacity to provide all Americans equitable opportunities to engage in and complete a rigorous postsecondary education is more important than ever and will demand our collective creativity and commitment.”

“The landscape of American higher education has never been so rich in alternatives and so diverse in student backgrounds—nor so complicated,” said Commission Co-Chair Michael McPherson. “Improving the performance of this vital system must begin with a clear and reliable description of how it operates now, including making clear for whom the system works best and who struggles for success within it. The evidence reported in the primer makes clear that this country educates more students from more backgrounds more successfully than ever in its history. But the evidence also shows that there is tremendous room and tremendous need for improvement.”

“Our nation has made significant strides in expanding access to higher education,” said American Academy President Jonathan F. Fanton. “The commission’s first publication makes clear the social and civic contributions of college graduates, and the positive influence of college on their personal, family, and economic well-being. But until the avenue of opportunity through higher education is open equally to Americans from all backgrounds—until access to college is matched by comparable progress in college success—we have much work left to do.”

As its next step, the commission will now examine both problems and promise inherent in the trends captured by the new publication. The commission will also use this curated research to develop a working hypothesis about what the United States will look like if these trends persist, at the same time that it recommends corresponding changes to benefit students.

The Academy received $2.2 million from Carnegie Corporation of New York for this initiative. A complete list of commission members is available on the Academy’s website.

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 international affairs; 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.



For the American Academy
Andy Tiedemann
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Twitter: @americanacad




Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education

Roger W. Ferguson and Michael S. McPherson