The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America

Areas for Further Discussion and Research

Back to table of contents
Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education

While the Commission has tried to be rigorous in its analysis, recommendations, and even its speculations by responding to and incorporating the best available data and by canvassing as many institutions as possible to collect best practices, it recognizes, with humility, that there is still much to learn. In particular, important questions either remain unanswered or have been answered only provisionally or incompletely. Research on educational practice and policy can be extremely challenging, since it often depends on the study of complex, variable, and multifaceted human interactions.111Nevertheless, Americans need to keep asking these questions in the hope that our research methods and our technologies will evolve to match our curiosity. Convinced that more knowledge about teaching and learning and about the structures and contexts that support this essential process is key to the pursuit of a better future, the Commission offers several priorities for further discussion and research.

A deeper understanding of the relationship of teaching to student learning is needed and the many factors that affect this dynamic. Such factors include the discipline being taught, student characteristics, faculty awareness and commitment to effective teaching strategies, the delivery methods and uses of educational technology, and institutional rewards and incentives. There is far more systematic work on these matters in K-12 than in higher education, and while some of the findings from earlier levels of education can transfer to undergraduate education, researchers should embark on an equally rigorous study of undergraduate teaching and learning in its own right. Institutions would do well to engage in further research exploring how successful teachers go about their work and how less successful teachers can learn to improve, including such practical matters as determining what strategies can help already busy faculty improve their effectiveness as teachers.

As more is understood about the teaching and learning dynamic, the systematic measurement of what students have learned, how well they learned it, and whether some groups are learning more than others should continue to be pursued. The Commission recommends the development of more reliable measures of student learning gains and the relationship between such gains and teaching practices, whether traditional or digital. In order to do so, further research is needed on ways to measure and report on student learning within particular subject matters and concentrations as well as across undergraduate institutions.

As a corollary, more needs to be known about what students expect and how well they connect what they learn in college to their lives after college. It seems reasonable to suppose that an incoming student who is more deliberate about course selection, more self-aware about personal strengths and weaknesses, and more focused on specific future goals might proceed more efficiently toward a degree. But undergraduate education as a whole has struggled to link coursework to specific skills and outcomes for students, in part because it lacks baseline knowledge about how students understand, interpret, and respond to their own educational choices.

As noted throughout this report, the significant support and attention being dedicated to research on teaching and learning in the STEM fields is generating a large body of knowledge as well as real changes in educational processes. We should continue to build upon this knowledge and practice base and explore how all disciplines, from business to nursing, from the humanities to the social sciences, can develop their own discipline-based research agendas and transfer the knowledge gained into practice. These findings will likely have strong implications, across and within institutions, for how good teaching is recognized and rewarded.

This report details various strategies for increasing completion rates and reducing inequities among student populations, including the implementation of guided pathways and transfer redesign. The research base for evaluating the efficacy of completion initiatives, however, is relatively small and needs expansion. For example, there is little understanding of why some underserved populations respond positively to completion initiatives while others continue to struggle, or which group-specific barriers are most resistant to change. Further evaluation of these examples will help administrators, faculty, and policy-makers to understand what works and what does not. Such evaluations should also take into account the extent to which effective college teaching affects completion.

This report has pulled from the most reliable data sources on costs and affordability to formulate recommendations aimed at making undergraduate education financially accessible to all. Continued research is needed on ways to address student debt such that borrowers can meet their responsibilities with appropriate support from taxpayers, addressing the question of the appropriate division of the responsibility between students and taxpayers in general. And further research and discussion must continue on how the structure of public finance of undergraduate education needs to change.

The report focuses primarily on American topics and policy. Future work in this area would benefit from exploring the approaches used in other countries to improve their own postsecondary education systems—how other countries and their institutions seek to improve learning, increase completion rates, and make college more affordable. Institutions in different countries have developed methods and educational practices quite different from those in the United States, and further research on and assessment of these methods would be beneficial. Countries around the world are also experimenting with innovations in educational technologies. Connecting and coordinating efforts globally would help with determining whether and how beneficial, scalable, and effective such innovations are. Moreover, U.S. colleges and universities train leaders from many countries and enable this country to attract talented people from throughout the world who contribute to the American economy and society. Further research into the changing international role of the American higher education system would also contribute to the understanding of the opportunities and challenges facing undergraduate education in this country.


111. For a fuller discussion, see Paul E. Lingenfelter, “Proof,” Policy, and Practice: Understanding the Role in Evidence in Improving Education (Sterling, Va.: Stylus Publishing, 2016); and National Research Council, Improving Measurement of Productivity in Higher Education.