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As Higher Education Grows More Crucial, How Can It Be Improved?

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Close to 90 percent of today’s high-school graduates are expected to attend college at some point in young adulthood. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll all graduate, have a good experience, or learn a whole lot.

With this in mind, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences formed a commission to recommend changes that would improve the quality of higher education and the lives of the students who seek it. The commission released its final report,"The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America," this week. It offers recommendations for improving educational quality, raising completion rates, reducing inequality, and making college more affordable.

The Chronicle caught up with Michael S. McPherson, one of the commission’s co-chairs, to hear more about these goals — and how they can be achieved at a time when higher education is under widespread assault. The conversation with Mr. McPherson, president emeritus of the Spencer Foundation and a former president of Macalester College, has been edited and condensed.

Q. The report states that education isn’t the solution to every problem but is often "the best tool we have at our disposal." A few years ago, that would have struck me as being beyond debate. But now I wonder if the public would even agree with it. Higher ed is under attack, both culturally and financially. How do these recommendations fit into that reality?

A. There is a fair amount of public-opinion evidence of people’s doubts about higher education, which are of course echoed in their doubts about a variety of institutions in society. At the same time, most people, if they have children, want their kids to go to college. And many people who have not completed a college degree want to go back if they can figure out a way to do it. There are obstacles that make that difficult for them, and that may lead to resentment, but the underlying desire to become more educated is still pretty strong.

So while people may indeed have vocal complaints about higher education and doubts about it, those aren’t sufficient to stop them from wanting to get it.

Q. Who are you hoping will take action based on these recommendations? Is this really a moment when you can gain traction with DC policy makers?

A. We intend for it to be a report that lots of people can be involved in. First of all, we do have a set of concrete recommendations for the federal government, in good part on potential reauthorization issues. We want to reach institutional leaders, and we think that institutions can collaborate in various ways that they don’t now do very well. State governments are important players as well. We don’t expect them to reverse the funding trends of recent years, but we would like to at least see them stabilize.

And we need to put the money where it will do the most good. When you think of areas like state student-aid programs, are those being targeted to the people for whom it will really make the most difference in their college opportunity?

The same kind of question arises with regard to how the states decide on different levels of funding for different institutions. That’s inevitably a political process, but the question of whose lives are going to be changed by these dollars is really important.

View full story: The Chronicle of Higher Education



Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education

Roger W. Ferguson and Michael S. McPherson