The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America

Priority One Recommendations

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Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education

Ensure that all students—whatever their program of study—have high-quality educational experiences that prepare them for success in the twenty-first century.

Too little attention is paid in undergraduate education to the educational experience itself and, in particular, to the challenge of ensuring that the 17 million diverse college students in many types of programs are learning and mastering knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will help them succeed in the twenty-first-century United States. Moreover, these students face the growing challenges of a changing and more competitive global economy in which they are competing against highly motivated and trained students throughout the world. For this reason, the Commission’s recommendations intentionally begin with the educational experience, with student learning. All college graduates—regardless of their major or the credential they will earn—need their programs of study to impart a forward-looking combination of academic knowledge and practical skills so they are prepared for both economic success and civic engagement. Today, the long-standing debate over the value of a liberal arts education versus a more applied postsecondary program presents a false choice. College educators need to adjust their program curricula and learning expectations accordingly. And students need to see the ability to work and learn with others, and to disagree and debate respectfully, as a skill essential for a high quality of life and a future of economic success and effective democratic citizenship.

The Commission recognizes that advancing the broad learning agenda advocated here—and advocating for more attention to the teaching enterprise itself—will remain difficult until more sophisticated and useful ways of measuring what students actually learn are developed. Redressing this lack of good data is a high priority. The Commission calls for far greater attention to and support for the quality of college teaching and the teaching workforce. Students learn in many different settings, including through peer interactions, co- and extracurricular activities, and self-motivated exploration. Ultimately, though, making undergraduate learning stronger and more rigorous will depend upon how undergraduate education invests in the teaching skills of its faculty and the kind of institutional and systemic commitment that is made.

  1. Widespread inattention to teaching quality in the preparation, selection, and assessment of faculty is a major obstacle to improved undergraduate student learning. University systems and individual campuses, academic departments, and disciplinary associations all have roles to play:
    1. Master’s and doctoral programs that produce college teaching faculty should integrate meaningful and explicit teacher training opportunities.
    2. Institutions must make a systemic commitment to the improvement of college teaching, a commitment that acknowledges and rewards good teaching practices that are grounded in the learning sciences and an understanding of the variety of experiences and learning styles students bring to campuses. This commitment will most likely require ongoing review of faculty teaching practices; analyzing the faculty incentive system; making mentoring and other structured resources available to faculty throughout their teaching careers; and including teaching quality as a key part of tenure evaluation and contract renewal decision-making processes. Much of this work must take place in collaboration with academic departments.
    3. Disciplinary associations should lead research and professional development efforts exploring the relationship between teaching practices and student learning.
  2. Colleges and universities have the opportunity and the responsibility to bring together students from different backgrounds to create intellectual and social connections in ways that sustain and enrich American democracy. Relatedly, faculty and staff all need training and support to make possible campus cultures and classes that fully encourage active listening, discussion, and debate on controversial topics informed by the rigors of reason and evidence. Colleges and universities constitute one of the most important sites where people from various backgrounds and perspectives interact, learn with and from one another, and grapple with difference. Being prepared to teach in an increasingly contentious and fractured world, where diversity is crucial, is difficult.
  3. Recognizing the challenges associated with greater numbers of short-term, nontenure instructors, any effort to improve undergraduate teaching and learning will require providing nontenure-track faculty with stable professional working environments and careers. The trend toward increased employment of short-term, nontenure-track faculty in undergraduate teaching will persist as long as colleges are under pressure to keep costs down and universities continue to produce more PhDs in some fields than are likely to find tenure-track employment. Good teaching need not require tenure-track faculty in every case, but it does require that faculty be supported and rewarded for doing their work well:
    1. As they hire nontenure-track faculty who concentrate on teaching—a growing share at many institutions across the country—colleges and universities should aim to make these positions full-time with longer-term contracts and a clear voice in governance, relying less on short-term, part-time instructors. These positions should respect professional norms of academic freedom and provide a voice in university governance and the opportunity to build successful professional lives with reasonable benefits and job security.
    2. Support and integrate faculty who teach on a part-time basis, and who are recruited for their specialized expertise but who do not necessarily want to pursue an academic track, in a way that suits their more flexible needs.
    3. Ensure that faculty from a diversity of backgrounds are equitably represented across all instructional categories.
  4. All college credentials—certificates and associate’s and bachelor’s degrees—should incorporate academic, career, and civic knowledge and skills as a foundation for rewarding and productive lives and careers. In workplaces continually impacted by technological advances, employers value graduates who possess a broad technical, social, and entrepreneurial skillset, as well as the ongoing motivation to develop and apply new skills. Employers have a key role in helping graduates obtain these capacities. At the same time, the complexities of contemporary society demand citizens who understand the values and behaviors that lead to active civic engagement and contribute to a healthy democracy. Undergraduate learners need meaningful opportunities to develop and integrate knowledge and skills in the classroom and through cocurricular experiences such as co-op programs and internships, research, international study, or service that can help them improve their economic prospects, effectively navigate their personal and public worlds, and continue to learn throughout their lifetimes. Even in short-duration certificate programs, technical and academic knowledge should be augmented by curricular redesign that strengthens practical skills such as communication, problem-solving, and teamwork.
  5. Develop more reliable measures of student learning gains, since knowing what students have learned and can do is a critically important measure of college value. The focus on student learning as a means to understand and evaluate the effectiveness of a college credential is a valuable addition to what have traditionally been imperfect proxy measures used in college rankings systems such as admission rates and endowment sizes. However, colleges and universities remain in the earliest stages of finding ways to measure and report on student learning within and across undergraduate institutions, as well as how to best convey aggregated levels of learning to the general public. Learning gains should be disaggregated by subgroups that include socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, and gender. Greater attention should be paid to how other countries and their institutions address this problem and seek to measure actual learning in their schools.
  6. Further experimentation with strategies for teaching and supporting students in online, “hybrid,” and technology-supported environments, including new models where conventional teaching responsibilities are divided across multiple individuals, is needed to assess their effectiveness and to help instructors teach well in these formats. Online courses and other technology-rich teaching innovations have the potential to offer much greater access, flexibility, and learning opportunities to students. Development of these innovations across undergraduate education, within existing institutions, and through new institutions is still at an early stage with promising potential. However, that potential has not yet been fully realized. Rigorous assessments are rare and high-quality evidence shows mixed results. In general, but particularly for lower-income and first-generation college-goers, existing technology simply cannot substitute for in-person instruction but requires a “high-tech/high-touch” approach.
  7. Federal and state government should invest in a research and development strategy that increases the knowledge base regarding new models for designing, delivering, and assessing learning. Given the limited research base and mixed results to date, the Commission supports an evidence-based approach to the introduction of technology-based or technology-assisted education models. Outcomes should be disaggregated by key population groups, particularly those such as low-income, minority, and first-generation students. Results should be freely shared and disseminated across institutions and among researchers.