The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America

Strengthen the Student Educational Experience

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Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education


For the past two decades, institutions of higher education have been the subject of increased public scrutiny, and perhaps that is as it should be. As a society, we ask so much of our two-year and four-year institutions—that they provide foundational knowledge for future citizens, practical skills for future workers, technical innovations for future discoveries, and the understanding and habits of mind that can sustain all of us through the course of our lives. And we are now asking that they provide this kind of quality education to more students than ever before. Currently, 17 million students are enrolled in college and university programs across the country—representing, in every sense, the future of our country and of the world. It is only appropriate that we should continually evaluate the education they receive and adjust our methods and resources to ensure the most positive results for individual students, their families, and for our society as a whole.

Much of the current public discourse about higher education focuses on two systemic challenges: the affordability of a degree and the importance of program completion. Both are critical challenges that the Commission addresses in greater depth in later sections of this report, but before turning to those issues, we must first ask a fundamental question: What kind of education is worth students’ commitment of time and their investment of scarce resources? Too little attention has been devoted to this question and to the rigors of the learning experience itself, despite all of the attention paid to undergraduate education. Specific answers will vary and may be particular to each individual who asks, but the Commission believes that some important general characteristics distinguish a quality college education in every case, including the quality of the teaching students encounter. Completion and affordability are critical challenges, but we must first ask, and answer, completion and affordability for what?

Given the accelerated rate of change in American society—technological change, demographic change, the evolution of a global economy—a quality education must encourage and develop intellectual resilience and flexibility. It must offer students a combination of scholarly knowledge, practical skills, and personal dispositions that empowers them to live productive and meaningful lives and to participate effectively in the American economy and democracy, regardless of their program of study or their age at enrollment. And it must build on the strengths of previous generations while creating a solid, practical foundation for future generations—since today’s students are tomorrow’s teachers, whether they find themselves in a classroom, in a factory or boardroom, or around a dinner table.

Students learn in many different settings: in classrooms, lecture halls, and laboratories; online; through peer interactions; through co- and extracurricular activities; and through self-motivated exploration. In almost every case, the richness and rigor of undergraduate learning depends upon the quality of instruction being offered, including the expertise of the teaching workforce and the level of investment in successful teaching methods and resources. Currently, efforts to measure college learning and teaching quality are in their infancy. Researchers are making progress, such as recent advances in discipline-based education research in the STEM fields, but a great deal more needs to be done. In the meantime, colleges and universities need to be as strategic as possible about the kinds of instruction offered and how it is delivered.


Knowledge and Skills All Graduates Need: Academic, Practical, and Civic

All college students—whether enrolled in a short-term program, a two-year college, or a four-year institution—should be able to graduate with skills and credentials that help them to succeed personally and professionally, and to navigate the challenges they will face in their work, families, and communities. One college student may choose to earn a short-term certificate in medical assisting from a local community college. Another may work part-time toward an associate’s degree in science in automotive technology from a for-profit university. A third may pursue a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from a private, residential college. All should come away with a new facility in the knowledge and skills associated with their chosen program of study. But success in today’s economy and effective participation in a democratic society require a broader ambition.

Students need to be equipped with the skills, flexibility, and attitudes required to navigate amid uncertainty, to see change as an opportunity rather than a threat. Such a goal is especially challenging given the diversity of students currently enrolled in undergraduate education, one-third of whom are over the age of 25, as well as their varied and changing motivations for pursuing a degree. Currently, about half of all college students earn bachelor’s degrees (49 percent), while the other half pursue associate’s degrees (26 percent) and certificates (25 percent).12 Each pathway responds to a different set of motivations and offers a different set of outcomes. Yet all college graduates should also come away with an enhanced set of general skills that will serve them throughout their lives.

Figure B: Credentials Earned

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics,

Career-focused college programs must provide students with a strong base from which to secure employment, but they should also help students learn skills and behaviors necessary for success in the short and long term. Students earning a certificate in advanced manufacturing need to learn how to perform specific technical tasks. But they should also graduate with a broader understanding of how their work fits into the broader manufacturing sector and how to adapt quickly to industrial and technological changes so they can continue to succeed in their chosen fields, or even to change fields, if necessary. They should learn how to work collaboratively with peers (in person or through interactive technologies) to solve problems, to communicate their ideas, and to negotiate on their own behalf. Ultimately, they should have the capacity, when called upon, to lead. Similarly, students earning a bachelor of arts in political science or English literature should not simply be well versed in the discipline’s theories and methods. Their academic knowledge must be augmented with specialized and technical skill sets such as computer programming, data analysis, or social media.13

In these pursuits, the traditional division between a liberal arts education and a practical, applied education is no longer a very useful distinction. College graduates in every field need to master a blend of so-called soft and hard skills, technical training as well as socio-emotional, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills, so they can perform effectively at work, participate meaningfully in community and civic affairs, and pursue learning throughout their lifetimes. Vocational training focused on narrow job-related skills helps students find jobs when they are young, research finds, but they are often not prepared to adapt to changes over time and thus are more likely to be unemployed or have lower salaries when older compared to those who received a more academic general education.14 While short-term technical programs in particular are often underresourced and pressured to advance students quickly to completion, every program should strive to combine the skills of a liberal education with technical and practical skills for a firm foundation to promote greater social and economic mobility over a lifetime.

This approach is good for the individual student and increasingly it is good for business. A series of national surveys reveals that employers actively seek a workforce equipped with communication, problem-solving, and collaborative skills—and not simply the technical knowledge associated with particular tasks.15 Some of these skills can be learned in the classroom, but some might be better mastered through cocurricular experiences such as internships, service learning, and co-op programs that reinforce the interaction of theory and practice, knowing and doing.16 The intentional, mutual reinforcement between theoretical knowledge and direct experience is the foundation of any effective experiential learning program, and the collaboration between educational institutions and employers can be a powerful driver of innovation for business and academia alike. Further, ensuring that students receive a rigorous education engenders greater confidence among employers. Faculty and administrators at San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, work closely with representatives from local industries to review curricula and data on student progress and to propose adjustments that help prepare students to graduate with the skills and attitudes employers seek. IBM and other large employers like Cisco and IDEO are working on initiatives to hire “T-shaped” professionals, who possess not only soft skills for collaboration and the ability to interact with and understand specialists from diverse disciplines and functional areas (the T-top) but also the deep knowledge of a specific skill, process, or product (the T-stem). Several universities are now using the concept of the “T” to shape their curricula, with the goal of graduating students who are ready to tackle the challenges of an increasingly diverse, global, and technologically advanced workplace.17

Beyond preparing students for success in the workforce, preparing students for effective civic participation is a central obligation of undergraduate education writ large. Many of the country’s founders—Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, a charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—believed that the democratic experiment had to be safeguarded and maintained and that the enduring success of a democratic government depended upon an educated citizenry. And since the nineteenth century, expanding educational opportunity has been deeply embedded in American culture. This holds true today as well as into the future, obliging colleges and universities to actively educate students about fundamental knowledge about democracy, the practices and habits needed for lifelong active citizenship, and an understanding of and appreciation for the values that animate democratic practices. Every year, various reports raise concerns about the low level of civic literacy and participation in the United States.18 Each institution must come to its own definitions and goals for student civic learning and engagement, considering how these can be brought about through academic coursework, cocurricular activities, and off-campus experiences, especially in a time when social media may be changing how students participate in various political processes.19

Many of the skills and capacities needed for effective citizenship—problem-solving, critical and creative thinking, working in groups—are fully aligned with those needed for success in the workplace. Thus, regardless of a student’s program of study or eventual field of employment, a strong set of civic skills will complement, not compete with, their learning experience. Moreover, a well-educated citizenry has strong spillover effects—communities with strong civic health have higher employment rates, stronger schools, better physical health, and more responsive governments.20

As students engage in civic practices and discourse, this will inevitably give rise to competing ideas and positions on a variety of political and social issues. Vigorous debate must remain a bedrock value across undergraduate education. Rather than shielding students from points of view that some might find uncomfortable, educational institutions should actively promote discussion and debate. All members of the campus—faculty, staff, and administrators—have an important role to play by encouraging students to develop the confidence and skills to express themselves; to actively listen to all perspectives; to argue for, defend, and sometimes change their positions based on evidence and logic; and to fully appreciate the democratic principle of allowing citizens to speak their minds without fear of retaliation. Conflict and disagreement are inherent in debates that matter, but the environment within which debate occurs shapes the ability of all participants to engage productively. Colleges and universities need to foster the conditions for the open and constructive exchange of ideas while maintaining a safe environment for all to pursue their education. This is no easy feat, but American campuses are the right places to demonstrate to the wider world how this can be done. Indeed, colleges and universities are one of the few places where diverse people with different views learn to work and reason together.

Many undergraduate institutions are already strengthening their commitment to the preparation of future citizens. The American Democracy Project, a network of more than 250 public colleges and universities, supports hundreds of campus initiatives such as curriculum revision projects, voter education and registration efforts, and a speaker series. An international group of universities collaborates through the Talloires Network to incorporate civic engagement and community service into their research and teaching missions. Massachusetts was the first in the country to adopt a statewide policy for the incorporation of civic learning in undergraduate curricula across all of its public colleges and universities.21


Prioritizing Teaching and Learning

The ideal education proposed here, supporting short-term and long-term personal and professional goals for each individual student, places a substantial burden on college teachers. Many other factors contribute to student success, including academic preparation; adequate financial support; curricular design and structure; effective tutoring, counseling, and other student support services; and student motivation. Longitudinal research on the effects of “high-impact” educational practices—including participation in undergraduate research and service learning opportunities—indicates an array of positive outcomes.22 But the primary determinant of a quality education is the teaching and learning relationship between faculty and students. Effective student/faculty interactions are correlated with increased retention and completion rates, better grades and standardized test scores, and higher career and graduate school aspirations.23 Quite simply, students learn more and fail less when faculty members consult and utilize a large and growing body of research about effective teaching methods and make connections with students. Yet, despite the high stakes now associated with undergraduate education, most institutions pay too little attention to these findings. Generalizations about undergraduate teaching and learning can be misleading given the remarkable variety of institutional missions, student populations, courses of study, and faculty compositions. Colleges that enroll a large proportion of underprepared students face different challenges than institutions admitting high-achieving young adults who live and learn on campus. Tenured and tenure-track faculty at small liberal arts colleges must juggle different expectations and requirements than their counterparts at large research universities. Part-time adjunct faculty, who teach an increasing percentage of undergraduate courses, often lack the institutional supports and professional development opportunities provided to full-time faculty. And teachers within and among institutions may harbor vastly different theories about how learning occurs.

While there are many exceptions, across the undergraduate landscape good teaching is generally undervalued. Faculty are rarely trained, selected, and assessed as teachers, and their effectiveness as instructors is rarely recognized or rewarded. Tenure-track faculty are typically hired and promoted for their research, while part-time adjunct faculty receive little, if any, coaching and resources on teaching methods. There are, of course, many faculty for whom quality teaching is the highest possible goal; they should be valued and rewarded. It is time for colleges and universities to elevate the importance of good teaching and to treat the practice of teaching as a central skill to be developed and supported. A new pilot is not asked to fly a plane without first practicing on simulators and flying smaller planes with an instructor for many, many hours. Nor should faculty be asked to learn to teach through the current trial-and-error method.

Program on Intergroup Relations, University of Michigan

The Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) at the University of Michigan is a partnership between the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and the Division of Student Life with the goal of increasing active thinking, engagement in learning, and democratic participation. The Intergroup Dialogue process consists of structured social and intellectual interactions between members of different social identity groups over sustained periods of time. About 12–16 students from different groups participate in each section, which meets as a semester-long three-credit class. Research on IGR found that the experiences students have with diversity consistently and meaningfully affect important learning and democracy outcomes of a college education.

A crucial first step toward the rehabilitation of undergraduate teaching is the articulation of good teaching practices. Good teaching practice requires several forms of professional knowledge: fundamental subject-matter knowledge; teaching skills that transfer across disciplines and fields of study; discipline-specific instructional skills that combine a deep knowledge of subject matter (and the distinctive concepts, methods, and ways of thinking inherent to particular disciplines); and culturally relevant teaching practices and cultural modeling, which speak to the relevance of students’ cultural knowledge and experience.24 Many faculty members, for example, are experimenting with strategies to foster “active learning” in their classrooms, creating opportunities for students to cognitively interact with one another and the faculty member as opposed to exposing information to students in a passive manner.25 Good college teachers help students make explicit connections between theory and practice. Good teachers must be prepared to recognize and connect students who require support services to resources beyond the classroom. And as institutions fulfill their promise to prepare students for democratic citizenship as well as for the workforce, faculty must be ready to teach students how to listen actively to people who are different from themselves and hold competing ideological positions; to facilitate difficult conversations that may include issues related to race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other matters; and to ensure that students can think independently and creatively, expressing their opinions backed by evidence and reasoned judgment.

A growing body of research also indicates that significant student growth occurs when colleges provide structured opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds to learn and practice the skills and capacities needed to create real connection. This only happens when institutions leverage curricular and cocurricular activities that promote meaningful and sustained student dialogue and interaction.26 To do this most effectively, faculty must be prepared to become facilitators as well as instructors.

To meet these new requirements—to pursue research-based teaching methodologies and to facilitate open dialogue in the classroom—college faculty may need to conceive of their roles in fundamentally new ways. The transformation of a teaching workforce rooted in disciplinary expertise to include pedagogical expertise will not be easy. Emerging research on the science of learning cannot simply be disseminated with the hope that doing so will improve outcomes. The research needs to be reinforced by new professional development opportunities at every level, including “preservice preparation”—in which pedagogy becomes a significant component of graduate training—and “in-service” professional development providing ongoing evaluation and support.

Doctoral and master’s programs must integrate teacher training into their curricula. Graduate students who will be teaching assistants might be required to complete a teaching boot camp before they enter the classroom, as Clarkson University’s School of Arts and Sciences now requires of its incoming doctoral candidates. And the sector as a whole must support and reward effective teaching by offering incentives and strong cultural support that can motivate faculty to adopt new methodologies. Purdue University recently took a hard look at how it valued teaching and learning in promotion and tenure decisions and decided to include expectations for mentoring or other personal time invested in students among the factors influencing decisions.

More experienced teachers might occasionally attend classes taught by novices and act as mentors. Assistant professors at research universities, for example, are accustomed to having their research evaluated, but their teaching (other than student evaluations) receives no such review. Of course, mentors would themselves need training as observers and guides to improvement. The ultimate goal should be the creation of a new culture within and across all undergraduate institutions—as well as disciplinary organizations, higher education associations, and key federal and state agencies—that supports and rewards good teaching informed by the insights of learning science. Boise State University, for example, offers faculty a range of opportunities, including a five-day summer design institute to upgrade and improve a course; a program called Ten before Tenure, which offers pre-tenure faculty ten teaching-related development experiences; and an extended opportunity for a small group of faculty members to meet regularly with a facilitator to discuss pedagogy and design and implement an individual teaching innovation. The university offers travel awards to conferences, small grants, and departmental teaching awards and also includes clear evidence of teaching quality as an important factor in promotion and tenure decisions.

The STEM fields are increasingly emphasizing the critical relation between teaching and learning with a range of initiatives across the country. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released several influential reports and tools on increasing STEM degree attainment that underscore the importance of instructional practices and understanding how students learn.27 Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics, sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the National Science Foundation, is working to strengthen math education by working closely with faculty, administrators, membership associations, and disciplinary societies. The Association of American Universities recently completed a five-year project supporting eight research universities in their institution-wide and departmental efforts to reform undergraduate STEM education and to recognize and reward effective teachers.

The University of Colorado Boulder’s STEM Education Initiative

Nobel Prize–winning physicist Carl Weiman and colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder and at the University of British Columbia introduced the Science Education Initiative to stimulate large-scale adoption of active pedagogy by faculty, providing significant financial support for five years to redesign core undergraduate courses in several science departments. One key component was that departments were required to create and fill the position of a science teaching fellow whose primary responsibility was to support the course transformation process by helping faculty increase their knowledge of learning theory, practice, and assessment. About one-third of undergraduate courses in participating departments were redesigned, engaging over 50 percent of annual student enrollment. About half of faculty in the participating departments reported making changes to their teaching, though the extent of change varied with departmental leadership, teaching fellow skills, and faculty valuation of available incentives.

Digital Technologies and Competency-Based Education

Digital technologies are already changing the ways in which education is delivered, and prospects are strong for their potential to strengthen teaching and learning. The conversation around educational technology, once framed as a conflict between human and machine, is now shifting to an examination of how technology can complement, enable, and improve upon teacher-student interactions. While undergraduate education has generally been slow to adopt new methodologies, a growing number of faculty are already experimenting with new techniques and innovations—incorporating video, digital textbooks, social media, mobile apps, and digital games in their teaching.28 Despite the bullish predictions of the past decade, and with a few notable exceptions, the digital revolution has not, or at least not yet, led to a complete transformation in education.29 High start-up costs and the need for teacher training have slowed the evolution of the classroom. Nevertheless, a new era is on the horizon.

The most apparent change so far has been the growth and expansion of online courses over the past 20 years. In fall 2014, 12 percent of all undergraduates were enrolled exclusively in online programs and another 16 percent took at least one online course.30 The benefits for students are clear, eliminating geographic obstacles, scheduling challenges, and other factors that tend to limit access to higher education. Several studies indicate that well-structured and well-supported online learning experiences offer equal if not better outcomes than traditional face-to-face courses, at least in some subjects.31 Unfortunately, not all online students realize the same results. Students, particularly those in high-risk populations such as academically underprepared students, learn less in online courses than from equivalent courses with at least some face-to-face experience.32 And the impact of online education on decreasing costs is mixed as well, especially when institutions invest in teacher training and student supports for online classes. While a growing body of evidence suggests that computer-assisted education can be as effective if not more effective than traditional methods, its potential is still largely untapped.

Among the fastest-growing innovations are competency-based education (CBE) programs that award degree credit, primarily through online delivery, based on the demonstration of competencies rather than course hours. CBE programs maintain no time constraints; they are paced by the students themselves. A recent review suggests that as many as 200,000 students currently participate in approximately 150 CBE programs, with approximately 400 new programs in development.33 The traditional faculty role is often disaggregated: a faculty member creates the curriculum, a coach guides the student through the coursework, and an evaluator assesses student work. These programs are so new that there has been little careful research into their outcomes for students, but as more institutions experiment with and measure the results of these programs, their effectiveness and potential will become clearer. To improve the quality of the education they provide, colleges and universities need to encourage and incentivize such experiments, adopt third-party assessment strategies to make sure innovations are effective and equitable across various student populations, and develop supports for quick adoption of proven or highly promising practices.

Since digital technologies are global in their reach, the United States is not alone in its pursuit of a new, twenty-first-century educational strategy. Colleges and universities around the world—from Finland to South Korea to Singapore to Israel—are also experimenting online, and all would benefit from a concerted effort to share knowledge and test the scalability of new approaches. The Open University, the UK’s largest university, which serves over 200,000 students, has a robust and long-standing research division that includes an internal focus on continual improvement of the university’s own teaching and learning systems.

Although data needed to predict the outcomes of innovations are often lacking, researchers are beginning to accumulate sufficient domestic and international data to better inform decision-making. The improvement of learning analytics, which uses the data captured by traditional, online, and massively open online courses (MOOCs) to assess student progress, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of teaching techniques, will be a boon to the field—a resource for administrators and researchers alike.34 Eventually, such data may be as valuable as the courses themselves, providing a statistical basis to help inform education policy, teaching strategy, and cognitive research.


Addressing Faculty Workforce Challenges

Concurrent with the boom in digital education technologies has been an acceleration of the decades-long shift from a faculty dominated by full-time tenured or tenure-track professors to a faculty of part- and full-time instructors with no prospect of tenure. “Contingent” faculty, nontenure-track teachers whose primary responsibility is instruction or instruction combined with research and/or public service, account for at least half of all instructional faculty across all types of undergraduate institutions, ranging from 50 percent at public research universities to more than 80 percent at community colleges.35 Part-time positions with one-year terms or less make up the largest share of nontenure-track positions at all types of colleges and universities.36 There are many causes for this trend, including the demand for more technical and career classes taught by practitioners, greater flexibility in course offerings, and the overproduction of PhDs in some fields, with the result that tenure-track employment is unlikely. However, there is little doubt that a primary motivation behind the shift to short-term, part-time instructors is a desire among colleges and universities to reduce labor costs. Tenure-eligible positions will continue to be most common at research universities and highly selective liberal arts colleges. But even in these places, openings for “off the tenure track” will become more common in the future.

These parallel shifts—away from tenure and toward digital delivery—place a particular burden on nontenure-track faculty, especially part-timers. There are many part-time faculty who contribute their specialized expertise but who do not necessarily want to pursue an academic track. They often provide new perspectives and deep experience, rounding out students’ learning. However, they earn less and have fewer benefits than their tenured or tenure-track counterparts, and they often find themselves distanced from their institutions’ administrative decision-making, less able to advocate for themselves, and less available to engage with students. At open access institutions, a heavy reliance on part-time faculty, who often lack the time or space for regular, high-quality interactions with students before and after class, may have adverse consequences on student outcomes. In this environment, ensuring that high-quality teaching remains constant across all sectors for all students poses an urgent challenge.

The challenges associated with a contingent workforce are particularly troubling for minority students. At a time when about 32 percent of American college students identify as Black or Hispanic, only around 10 percent of full-time instructional faculty are either Black or Hispanic.37 It is concerning that the greatest progress in diversification of the teaching faculty is among nontenure-track and part-time faculty,38 many of whom lack the support and stability available to their full-time, tenured counterparts. Greater faculty diversity correlates with positive benefits for students of color, including higher persistence rates, better performance on tests, and increased classroom peer interaction.39 Faculty diversity is also valuable for all students, not just those from underrepresented groups: In a survey primarily about undergraduate preparation for the workforce, 77 percent agreed that having a minority faculty member better prepared them for the diversity of today’s corporate business environment.40

Given the importance of faculty in fostering and guiding student learning, it is critical to the quality of undergraduate education that effective teachers should be able to build successful professional lives, whether or not they have tenure. Universities and colleges can support a well-prepared and motivated teaching force by creating stable professional working environments to support high-quality instruction and by providing meaningful career ladders with appropriate protections for academic freedom.41 They should aim to create nontenure-track positions that are full-time with longer-term contracts and a clear voice in governance. Faculty in these positions should be evaluated and rewarded based on their teaching and on their efforts to master current trends in their fields. For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill complements its tenured and tenure-track faculty who have research responsibility with full-time, fixed-term (one to five years) lecturers, senior lecturers, and teaching professors who are engaged primarily in teaching. Allowances should be made for hiring short-term, specialized adjuncts who do not have and do not expect to have a long-term career in education, but colleges and universities should make a clear, ongoing commitment to improving how all faculty are selected, trained, evaluated, and supported.


Measuring and Strengthening the Quality of Student Learning

While countless faculty devote an enormous amount of effort to the evaluation of student learning at the course and departmental levels, valid and reliable measures of student learning within and across colleges and universities are lacking. Despite the development of tools to measure and evaluate the quality of learning in college, higher education as a sector is poorly structured for a free flow of data about what students have learned, how well they have learned it, how their education relates to future success and civic participation, and whether some groups are learning more, and more consistently, than others. Without such cross-cutting metrics, it is difficult to put learning front and center amid calls for institutional reform and the creation of accountability measures.

National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges

In 2008, prominent engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and visionaries assembled by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) identified 14 of the most critical engineering systems challenges facing the planet in the twenty-first century. These “Grand Challenges” include making solar energy economical, engineering better medicines, securing cyberspace, improving access to clean water, and ten other huge challenges. A program to prepare engineering students organized around the Grand Challenges subsequently took shape, and now more than 40 engineering schools around the world participate in The Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP) with more expected to join. The program aims to educate a new generation of engineers to tackle big real-world problems. GCSP is a combined curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular program built around five competencies that cut across specific disciplinary knowledge and skills. These are: 1) mentored research or project experience to enhance technical competence; 2) multidisciplinary approaches to problem-solving and design; 3) business/entrepreneurship competencies to underscore the importance of viable business models for successful solution implementation; 4) multicultural understanding, which is critical to any viable Grand Challenge solution; and 5) social consciousness, often developed through service learning. The NAE and enthusiasts of the GCSP approach hope it will generate thousands of graduates a year who are uniquely prepared and motivated to approach the most challenging problems facing the world.

Of course, accurate and reliable measurement of something as variable, and as private, as student learning is difficult and subject to any number of methodological disagreements.42 Any realistic attempt to develop more systematic measures of student learning must take into account the full range of student characteristics (e.g., academic preparation, age, enrollment status, number of institutions attended) as well as the variety of institutional types and missions. Nevertheless, some colleges and universities have developed practices that help to define learning outcomes at the course, program, and institutional levels and to use authentic student work to measure learning. The enhancement of measurement and assessment at the actionable level of the department or the program, rather than at the level of the college or university as a whole, may offer the most immediate benefits for educators. In many cases, such data encourage faculty to define course and program objectives more precisely, work collaboratively to make curricula and program changes, and experiment with ways to demonstrate achievement. There is still too little rigorous research to claim such efforts are contributing to student success, but early indications are promising.

A more effective system of assessment and evaluation may also help to supplement, or even to transform, college ranking systems, which currently rely on imperfect proxy measures such as admission selectivity rates and endowment sizes. While this application would be a mere by-product of enhanced data collection, it would be a great asset to students and families who seek more guidance as they choose among their educational options. Efforts such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ VALUE Rubric Development Project, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the University of Texas Skills Ledger, as well as surveys such as the National Survey of Student Engagement, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, Student Experience in the Research University, and the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, provide helpful information about student experiences and the extent to which students spend time on meaningful learning activities. They also generate insights into how colleges and universities can help students achieve at higher levels. But a well-developed valid and reliable methodology, based on an aggregation of data about learning, would help all parties compare and contrast institutions as they pursue the mission they all share: to provide a quality education to every student.


Approaches to Determining the Knowledge and Skills Needed by College Graduates

Campuses across the country, higher education organizations, and educational thought leaders are engaged in efforts to clearly define the outcomes of an undergraduate education. There is growing consensus, even among employers, around the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed by all college graduates. For example, the Association of American Colleges and Universities developed a list of essential learning outcomes in collaboration with campuses, researchers, and employers:

Knowledge of Human Cultures & the Physical & Natural World

  • Through study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts

Focused by engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring

Intellectual & Practical Skills

  • Inquiry and analysis
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Written and oral communication
  • Quantitative literacy
  • Information literacy
  • Teamwork and problem-solving

Practiced extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance

Personal & Social Responsibility

  • Local and global civic knowledge and engagement
  • Intercultural knowledge and competence
  • Ethical reasoning and action
  • Foundations and skills for lifelong learning

Anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges

Integrative & Applied Learning

  • Synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies

Demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems

In his book Our Underachieving Colleges, Derek Bok argues that the goals of an undergraduate education should include the ability to communicate, critical thinking, moral reasoning, preparing citizens, living with diversity, living in a more global society, gaining a breadth of interests, and preparing for work.

These examples illustrate ways of articulating the objectives associated with an undergraduate education. In light of the very wide range of institution types, student interests, and student backgrounds across American undergraduate education, the Commission supports campus efforts to engage in the meaningful exercise of defining the purposes of an undergraduate education in line with their missions.



12. National Center for Education Statistics,

13. For a comprehensive overview of data and analysis related to the humanities and the workforce, see The Humanities Indicators: A Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,

14. Eric A. Hanushek, Guido Schwerdt, Ludger Woessmann, and Lei Zhang, “General Education, Vocational Education, and Labor-Market Outcomes over the Lifecycle,” Journal of Human Resources 52 (1) (2017), doi: 10.3368/jhr.52.1.0415-7074R.

15. The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ Job Outlook 2016 survey (see reports that employers look for leadership skills, written communication skills, problem-solving skills, and a strong work ethic. The 2016 Business Roundtable Talent Survey (see found that employers believe college graduates and certificate holders are deficient in core skills, including the ability to use basic math, communicate effectively, read technical manuals, work successfully in teams, and participate in complex problem-solving. Similarly, the Bloomberg Job Skills Report 2016 (see lists strategic and analytical thinking, creative problem-solving, and the ability to work collaboratively as highly desired attributes. Across all industries surveyed by Bloomberg, the highest percentage (67.3 percent) of recruiters chose effective communication as one of the most important skills they look for. See also Hart Research Associates, Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success (Washington, D.C.: Hart Research Associates, 2015),

16. National Association of Colleges and Employers,; and Sean Seymour and Julie Ray, “Useful Internships Improve Grads’ Chances of Full-Time Work,” Gallup News, November 20, 2014,

17. For more information on these examples and other promising practices noted throughout this report, go to

18. See, for example, Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania,; Matthew Shaw, “Civic Illiteracy in America,” Harvard Political Review, May 25, 2017,; Pew Research Center,; and Intercollegiate Studies Institute, The forthcoming reports of the American Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship will address many of these issues and will be available at

19. See Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, and Danielle Allen, “Youth, New Media, and the Rise of Participatory Politics,” March 19, 2014,

20. See the National Conference on Citizenship,

21. See, for example, American Association of State Colleges and Universities,; The Talloires Network,; and University of Massachusetts,

22. The Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education estimated the effects of college student participation in the ten “high-impact” educational practices on a variety of liberal arts educational outcomes. C. A. Kilgo, J. K. Ezell Sheets, and E. T. Pascarella, “The Link between High-Impact Practices and Student Learning: Some Longitudinal Evidence,” Higher Education: The International Journal of Higher Education and Educational Planning 69 (4) (2015): 509–525, doi:10.1007/s10734-014-9788-z. The high-impact practices included in the study were first-year seminars, academic learning communities, writing-intensive courses, active and collaborative learning, undergraduate research, study abroad, service learning, internships, and capstone courses/experiences.

23. Adrianna Kezar and Dan Maxey, “Faculty Matter: So Why Doesn’t Everyone Think So?” Thought and Action (Fall 2014): 29–44. See also Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, et al., How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2010); Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004); Stephen E. Bradforth, Emily R. Miller, William R. Dichtel, et al., “University Learning: Improve Undergraduate Science Education,” Nature 532 (7560) (July 15, 2015): 282–284, doi: 10.1038/523282a; Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, et al., “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics,” Proceedings of the National Academies of Science 111 (23) (2014): 8410–8415, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1319030111; and National Research Council, Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2012), doi: 10.17226/13362.

24. For a full discussion, see Aaron M. Pallas, Anna Neumann, and Corbin M. Campbell, Policies and Practices to Support Undergraduate Teaching Improvement (Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2017).

25. Freeman et al., “Active Learning Increases Student Performance.”

26. Patricia Gurin, Biren Nagda, and Ximena Zuniga, Dialogue across Difference: Practice, Theory, and Research on Intergroup Dialogue (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2013).

27. See, for example, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Barriers and Opportunities for 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees: Systemic Change to Support Students’ Diverse Pathways (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2016), doi: 10.17226/21739; Supporting Students’ College Success, (with helpful webinar; and Reaching Students–Practitioner Guide for Faculty to Support Their Use of Evidence-Based Teaching Practices, (with webinar An additional faculty development tool is the CIRTL MOOX,

28. See, for example, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Educational Technology Plan Undergraduate Education Supplement,

29. The notable exceptions include the National Center for Academic Transformation’s nationally recognized course redesign approach and often include educational technology applications such as Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative.

30. National Center for Education Statistics,

31. See, for example, Charles Blaich, Kathleen Wise, Ernest T. Pascarella, and Josipa Roksa, “Instructional Clarity and Organization: It’s Not New or Fancy, But It Matters,” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 48 (4) (2016): 6–13, doi: 10.1080/00091383.2016.1198142; and Paul Fain, “Measuring Competency,” Inside Higher Ed, November 25, 2015,

32. Brookings Institution,

33. Eduventures,

34. See The Learning Analytics Workgroup, A Report on Building the Field of Learning Analytics for Personalized Learning at Scale (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014),

35. Steven Hurlburt and Michael McGarrah, The Shifting Academic Workforce: Where Are the Contingent Faculty? (New York: TIAA Institute and Delta Cost Project, 2016),

36. Ibid.

37. National Center for Education Statistics,

38. Martin J. Finkelstein, Valerie Martin Conley, and Jack H. Schuster, Taking the Measure of Faculty Diversity (New York: TIAA Institute, 2016),

39. David M. Marx and Phillip Atiba Goff, “Clearing the Air: The Effect of Experimenter Race on Target’s Test Performance and Subjective Experience,” British Journal of Social Psychology 44 (4) (2005): 645–657; Sylvia Hurtado, “Linking Diversity and Educational Purpose: How Diversity Affects the Classroom Environment and Student Development,” in Diversity Challenged: Evidence on the Impact of Affirmative Action, ed. Gary Orfield (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press, 2001), 187–203; and Linda Serra Hagedorn, Winny YanFang Chi, Rita M. Cepeda, and Melissa McLain, “An Investigation of Critical Mass: The Role of Latino Representation in the Success of Urban Community College Students,” Research in Higher Education 48 (1) (2007): 73–91.

40. Bernard Hodes Group, PhD Project Student Survey Report (New York: Bernard Hodes Group, 2008),

41. David N. Figlio, Morton O. Schapiro, and Kevin B. Soter, “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” Review of Economics and Statistics 97 (4) (October 2015): 715–724.

42. For example, many researchers claim that students are studying less—see Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, “The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 93 (2) (2011): 468–478—and that the intellectual gains students make during their college experience are modest. See Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011). Critics of these claims raise methodological concerns: They want to see time series data on test results to verify student learning, and they question the impact on educational outcomes of variables such as the mix of low-income and minority students, student preparedness, student engagement, and peer effects. National Research Council, Improving Measurement of Productivity in Higher Education (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2012).