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The Future of Undergraduate Education

Michael S. McPherson and Francesca Purcell
International Higher Education

Progress toward universal basic and secondary education in most countries has been slow and difficult, but the global trend over time is toward greater opportunity for more students from different backgrounds and regions. Building upon its history of educational expansion for young learners, the United States is now approaching universal access to post-secondary education with almost 90 percent of high school graduates enrolling in a two- or four-year college or university during young adulthood. Unfortunately, serious limitations must be addressed for more students to gain the economic and personal benefits that come along with a college education and for the country to continue as a democratic nation of economic opportunity. To ensure that students receive the education they need, we must focus on completion and affordability while more strongly emphasizing quality.


Improving Completion and Affordability

Like many higher education institutions worldwide, American colleges and universities struggle with completion and affordability. In the United States, too few students graduate, with only about 55 percent of students completing a college credential. More students are borrowing more money to pay for college, with over 60 percent taking out loans; and those who do not graduate are the most likely to have trouble paying back their loans, further limiting their economic opportunity. These obstacles are particularly acute for underrepresented minorities and students from low-income families, meaning that the country is missing out on large reservoirs of human potential. Many institutions, policy groups, and researchers now focus on completion and affordability and many promising practices show solid results. For example, Florida State University increased its completion rates from 63 to 79 per-cent over a period of years using data to identify barriers and implementing support structures to help students. The Australian and English income-based loan programs are exemplars in helping to reduce default rates and the United States should draw upon these models. In addition to completion and affordability, greater attention needs to be paid to the purposes of the learning that takes place during college and how we may realistically deliver on this promise of future prosperity.

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Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education

Roger W. Ferguson and Michael S. McPherson