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The State of Undergraduate Education

Inside Higher Ed

More Americans are attending college than ever before -- nearly 90 percent of millennials who graduate from high school attend college within eight years. But a far smaller proportion of Americans actually have a college degree: only 40 percent of students complete a bachelor’s degree in four years and 60 percent graduate in six years. At two-year colleges, 29 percent of students graduate in three years.

Those are the findings of a report released Thursday morning by the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, an initiative from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences begun last November. The commission was tasked with assessing the future undergraduate education by analyzing facts and data rather than relying on anecdotes, and it was funded with $2.2 million from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

“Our ambition is to help the American population, the American people, to appreciate what college education means now in the United States, which is something much broader and more complex than what a number of us might have thought a few years ago,” said Michael McPherson, co-chair of the committee and president of the Spencer Foundation.

The committee's first report, "The Primer on the College Student Journey," examines the current state of undergraduate education, compiling numbers on everything from college preparedness to student loans and providing some analysis. The data comes from a range of sources, including the National Center for Education Statistics, along with think tanks, nonprofits and academic studies.

“From an early point, it was agreed that an important thing to do was get a baseline for the state of undergraduate education so we could get a common set of facts,” said McPherson.

This report will inform the committee’s work moving forward, and the committee plans to publish another report next summer on the state of higher education for the next 20-25 years.

The report published this morning is also a trove of data on higher education. Among the takeaways from the report:

  • When it comes to college attainment, gender matters. In 2015, 50 percent of women aged 25-29 had a bachelor’s degree; 41 percent of men did.
  • Race and ethnicity matter, too. Nearly three-fourths (72 percent) of Asian students aged 25-29 had earned an associate degree or higher. That percentage was much higher than for white (54 percent), black (31 percent) and Hispanic students (27 percent).
  • Many high school graduates are unprepared for college; half must take remedial classes. Remedial classes don’t always work, though -- just 28 percent of two-year college students who took these courses actually earned a degree in 8.5 years.
  • Students are borrowing more. In 2000, about 50 percent of students took out loans; that number had increased 10 percentage points by 2012.
  • A small number of college graduates default on their loans -- 9 percent. But many more people default if they attended college and did not graduate -- 24 percent. That is why “borrowers at greatest risk of defaulting are typically those who take out the smallest loan amounts,” the report said.

Rather than take the conventional four-year track to graduation, many students followed what the report called "a multidirectional transfer swirl."

Approximately one-third (35 percent) of first-time students either transferred or were simultaneously enrolled in two institutions over six years. Although traditionally people might consider transferring to mean moving from a two-year institution to a four-year institution, some students made lateral transfers -- that is, 15 percent of those enrolled at two-year institutions enrolled at another two-year college; 17.2 percent of students at four-year universities switched to two-year colleges; and 17.9 percent of students at four-year institutions transferred to a different four-year.

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Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education

Roger W. Ferguson and Michael S. McPherson