The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America


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Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education

The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America is published at a critical moment in our nation’s history, when so many long-standing assumptions about who we are as a people, and where we are headed, have been called into question.

For over a century, we have pursued grand ambitions—groundbreaking scientific discoveries, life-changing technological advances, hard-won social change—and emerged ever stronger, if still imperfect, from our struggles. In recent years, however, we appear to have lost some of that motivating enthusiasm, the optimism that has always lifted us as a people. As we grapple with persistent social inequalities, widening political divisions, prolonged international conflict, and intensifying environmental challenges, we often seem more concerned with the limits of our present capabilities than in the realization of our dreams.

If we are to regain our momentum, as we have after so many other challenging moments in our past, we will have to find new ways to channel our inexhaustible creativity, restore a measure of civility to the national discourse, and bridge our differences. In short, we will have to recommit to the promise of education—to study the lessons of the past, analyze the requirements of the present, and imagine the innovations that will brighten our future. Education is not the solution to every problem, but it is often the best tool we have at our disposal, and there is good reason to believe it has been the primary source of our greatest achievements over the past century.

This report offers practical and actionable recommendations to improve the undergraduate experience. But in its practicality, it is motivated by the highest ideals: faith that every person, from every background, can succeed in America when given the proper training and preparation; confidence that our existing institutions of higher education can and will evolve to meet the needs of today’s and future students; and an unwavering commitment to the free exchange of ideas as the basis of a creative, productive, and democratic society. As stated in the conclusion of this report, “Progress is not guaranteed, and good things will happen only with sustained effort, but if we can sustain focus on the work, combining patience with urgency, we can, through undergraduate education, make great advances as individuals and as a nation.”

The Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, which authored this report, was created in 2015 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in response to a suggestion from Dr. Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York. Dr. Gregorian observed that the context and expectations for American undergraduate education had changed dramatically over the past few decades, as our colleges and universities opened their doors to new populations of students (young and old, traditional and nontraditional, immigrant and international) and that it was time for a new study to examine the student educational journey. He therefore asked the American Academy to examine the current state of American undergraduate education, project the nation’s short-term and long-term educational needs, and offer recommendations for strengthening all aspects of undergraduate education. We are grateful for his encouragement and for the support of Carnegie Corporation.

We are also very fortunate to have had the leadership of our distinguished cochairs, Michael McPherson, president emeritus of the Spencer Foundation, and Roger Ferguson, president and chief executive officer of TIAA. Their rigorous approach to the task, generosity of spirit, and deep knowledge of higher education have been invaluable to this effort. Thanks as well to all the Commission members (see Appendix A for a complete list), whose dedication and creativity enriched this effort and who modeled the kind of civil discourse and consensus-building that is, itself, one of the primary goals of undergraduate education. In preparation for this final report, they also published several occasional papers that elaborate many of the themes delineated in the pages that follow: A Primer on the College Student Journey, The Complex Universe of Alternative Postsecondary Credentials and Pathways, Undergraduate Financial Aid in the United States, Policies and Practices to Support Undergraduate Teaching Improvement, and The Economic Impact of Increasing College Completion. All of these publications are now available at

Over a two-year period, the Commission sought advice from a wide range of experts and organizations, all listed in Appendix B. We are grateful to all of them for their insights and suggestions. We also thank the following individuals for their time and counsel: David Autor, Larry Bacow, Cynthia Barnhart, Christopher Bishop, Derek Bok, Phil Bredesen, Louise Bryson, Mary Sue Coleman, Ron Daniel, Michael Dennin, Nicholas Dirks, Robert Haas, Dale Jorgenson, Jerry Kagan, Nan Keohane, Raynard Kington, Richard Light, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Martin Lipton, Stan Litow, Tony Marx, David Oxtoby, Robert Pozen, David Pritchard, Virginia Sapiro, Alfred Spector, Jerry Speyer, and Mitchell Stevens.

Thanks as well to the members of the Academy’s Board of Directors, Council, and Trust for their leadership, advice, and support for this project, and to the Academy staff who ably served this Commission and prepared this report: Francesca Purcell, Eliza Berg, John Tessitore, Phyllis Bendell, Alison Franklin, Heather Mawhiney, Scott Raymond, and Peter Walton; and consultants Lara Couturier and Richard Kazis.

This report is the culmination of a long process of research and deliberation, but it is only the beginning of the effort to strengthen undergraduate education in America. We will need many willing partners to help advance our recommendations. We look forward to working with you, and to hearing your thoughts about this report, in the months and years ahead.

Jonathan F. Fanton

Jonathan F. Fanton
American Academy of Arts and Sciences