The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America

The Further Future Considered

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

At its most fundamental level, education (from preschool through graduate school) is a preparation for the days, years, and decades ahead. The preceding three sections of this report analyze present-day realities, propose a set of priorities for future investment and innovation, and offer recommendations for achieving a more effective and equitable approach to undergraduate education. Action on these recommendations can and should begin soon, and many will take 10–20 years before they are realized. This fourth and final section takes a deliberately more speculative approach, considering an even more distant future through four lenses: the country’s level of social cohesion; the needs and characteristics of the workforce; the level of access to information and advanced educational technologies; and unforeseen natural or human-generated global challenges. As any reader of science fiction can attest, the number of possible futures is infinite, and even minute differences between imagined scenarios can result in wildly varying outcomes. The Commission focuses on four factors that seem most plausible and pertinent to its principal concerns (quality, completion, and affordability) and tries to imagine what the nation’s needs will be and how colleges and universities might respond. In each case—whether contemplating a future characterized by social division or unity, widespread automation, a greater dependency on data, sudden cataclysmic change, or anything in between—it is clear that undergraduate education will continue to play a vital role in securing and strengthening the nation’s future.

The section concludes by offering a set of research questions to continue to advance the work toward a strengthened and more affordable undergraduate education for a greater share of Americans.


Factor #1: A More Divided or a More United Nation


By 2040, there will be no racial or ethnic majority in the United States, a clear turning point in the history of the nation. If current trends persist, income and wealth inequality will continue to expand, and political divisiveness may intensify even further. The nation’s inclusivity, a foundational principle of the American experiment, is a great virtue by any reasonable standard. But it also serves, paradoxically, to complicate democratic governance and to make the achievement of consensus ever more difficult. These shifts, some more predictable than others, will be happening as the global economy continues to alter sectors of the American economy and as the ongoing proliferation of news media will make it even easier for consumers to select information sources that confirm their biases and, in some instances, their worst impulses. The potential for heightened discord is already evident in the deterioration of political deliberation at all levels and in the coarseness of the public discourse.

To check these negative influences, undergraduate education should play a large and constructive role. As cultural crossroads and sites of reasoned debate—as institutions that should and often do welcome students from all communities: urban and rural, conservative and liberal, young and old, high- and low-income, LGBTQI, and so on—they could set new standards for civility and mutual understanding in a society sorely in need of new models. By welcoming international students, they can encourage interactions among peoples of different cultures, often for the first time, and thereby perform a critical function in a shrinking world. And they should continue to fulfill their customary function, to provide the knowledge and understanding—of science and technology, history, economics, and the arts—as well as the critical thinking skills and the civic instruction necessary to support informed decision-making in a fast-paced, interconnected, technological future.

Most projections about the future of undergraduate education (including this report) assume that distance learning will continue to expand as a way to ensure access for the widest possible population of students. Some experts even predict the end of the college campus as we know it, to be replaced by hybrid and online delivery models. In this context, the power of Skype and its progeny is undeniable, eliminating any physical distance, no matter how great, between a student and a teacher. Even if MOOCs have not transformed undergraduate education, as was predicted earlier in this decade, they have pointed to a future much less tied to physical presence, in which higher education is more accessible and less expensive for more people. This is especially good news for people who live far from the institutions of their choosing, who are unable to enroll full time because they are juggling jobs and/or family, or who cannot afford room and board. But something vital would be lost if undergraduate education adopts online delivery systems without recreating, in a digital space, the sense of community that could serve to bind together those who attend and work in the nation’s colleges and universities. The loss of public spaces, without a suitable replacement in the digital world, would serve to limit even further the number of opportunities students would have to encounter viewpoints other than their own. An increasingly diverse nation requires more common spaces and more opportunities for meaningful interaction, not fewer, whether they exist physically or virtually.

Online technology may well be evolving rapidly enough to help fill the void, although that is by no means certain. For example, the American Academy’s recent report on language learning, America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century, applauds the expansion of new online exchanges that enable American students to communicate directly with students from other countries and regions to enhance their language and cultural skills.103 And many universities are now experimenting with new platforms that resemble, recreate, and even improve upon the traditional common spaces of campus life. But the provision of public space, as crucial as it can be, is not enough to foster the kinds of interactions most needed to overcome the potential divisions that threaten the nation. Colleges and universities will also require faculty and administrators who are trained and prepared to mediate as well as educate, who can bring together students of diverse viewpoints and structure productive dialogue among them, and who can ensure that all ideas are evaluated with respect and civility.

Previously, when new voices have been added to the national chorus—for example, during the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s or the women’s movement in the 1970s—the nation has turned to its colleges and universities to help define and model a more civil form of public discourse, a process that can be as disruptive as it is constructive. Sometimes this process has led to immediate and positive results, such as the forging of a new collaboration among former adversaries. Other times, it has led to more turbulent and vivid activity, such as the staging of protests, the occupation of buildings, and highly visible conflicts stoked by social media. But both aspects of this public role have proven crucial to the nation as it evolves over time. And the nation will continue to turn to its educational institutions in future moments of transition, as long as they are able to maintain an open environment for the free exchange of ideas, the creation of strong and diverse communities, and the possibility of both chance and deliberate encounters among people of different backgrounds, whether online or on the ground. Few other American institutions have played this role as effectively in the past, and there does not appear to be a clear alternative on the horizon. Higher education—on campus or online—should continue to provide students, and the nation as a whole, with the time, space, and resources necessary for the thoughtful, collaborative, and occasionally contentious process of defining the kind of society Americans would like to foster today and tomorrow.


Factor #2: An Automated, Roving Workforce


Advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, and enhanced and virtual reality technologies are all evolving so rapidly that experts in a wide variety of fields—from manufacturing to transportation to the military—are considering the consequences of an automated future in which many of the tasks now performed every day at work and at home will be performed by machines. Their projections range from a utopian notion of an abundant society in which people are freed from common drudgery in order to solve persistent problems like disease and hunger, engage in volunteer efforts more fully, and pursue leisure activities at length, to a dystopian vision of mass unemployment, wide-ranging worker dislocation, ever-greater inequality, and existential disaffection.

Along with the range of possibilities brought about by greater automation, there may also evolve a decidedly larger “gig economy” in which increasing numbers of workers are hired on a task-by-task basis, often through a digital marketplace, to work on-demand rather than as full-time employees, and without many of the protections federal law provides for traditional workers.104 The recent rise of online services such as TaskRabbit, which connects freelance workers of all kinds to local demand, is evidence that Americans are already beginning to develop strategies to accommodate an economic future of high turnover and volatility. Moreover, according to most measures, Americans change jobs more frequently than they have in the past, and they are less likely to view their jobs as part of a long-term career path.105 Most of this flux is precipitated by a changing global economy, by the rapid upheaval of industrial practices in the digital age, and by circumstances like the slow recovery from the Great Recession.

The combination of these trends may suggest a future that fundamentally demands people learn an assortment of new and increasingly complex skills over their lifetimes; in which the relationships between employers and employees are even further attenuated; and in which a “gig” may be a more common economic arrangement than a job and independence is valued more highly than stability.

Although the gig economy is still a small fraction of the workforce, colleges and universities are already implementing new strategies for teaching students the technical skills they need to succeed amid technological upheaval and the changing nature of the workforce. But there may be deeper and more fundamental structural changes needed in a world in which practical and technical knowledge is quickly outdated, with parts of jobs or even entire jobs replaced by advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. Such a workforce—adaptable but itinerant—would place a premium on educational approaches that provide “just-in-time” technical and intellectual skills and foster professional resiliency and flexibility. And employers would perhaps play a greater role in providing employees with short-term, ongoing training opportunities. An educational system based on disciplinary divisions and credit hours would be increasingly forced to adjust to meet the requirements of an evolving workplace and a growing number of education and training providers. At the same time, if the economy develops in ways that further strip workers of existing protections and opportunities for collective action, it may become even more important that education should equip people to be more self-reliant and assertive and more capable of problem-solving and critical thinking.

Current responses to an increased demand for shorter-term, flexible options include competency-based programs and innovations like coding boot camps and MOOCs. The recent closure of several prominent coding academies is a reminder of the fragility of forecasts of the future, but many efforts are proceeding apace. AT&T’s multiyear effort to develop a comprehensive strategy to reskill its existing workforce of almost 300,000 employees relies, in part, upon partnerships with Georgia Tech and Udacity to offer employees flexible opportunities to engage in lifelong learning and skills development through short-term “nano-degrees” and online master’s programs. These sorts of programs increasingly will address the needs of new student populations, particularly working adults.

So, too, does a wide range of new badging programs, which certify a student’s attainment of specific marketable skills for a range of professional fields. Badges are currently distributed by a variety of independent organizations and can be displayed by recipients on emerging e-credential sites like Credly. Like other social media innovations, their value is crowd-sourced: badge recipients and the employers who hire them rate particular badges just as Amazon customers rate products and Facebook users “like” their friends’ posts. Cumulative ratings within the marketplace ultimately determine their value. Similarly, “microdegrees”—which typically focus on a specific professional skill set and are delivered online in an accelerated format—may prove to be harbingers of adaptable models for future educators who will be expected to provide students with practical and marketable skills quickly enough to keep pace with innovation.

Colleges and universities will need to make careful and informed choices about how they design and structure future educational opportunities.106 A fully automated future would require a highly skilled, technical, and adaptable human workforce. But the best, most efficient, and most natural strategy for succeeding in a world enhanced by robots and artificial intelligence and by careers punctuated by change and itinerancy may be to develop the qualities that make us most human and most resilient, to double down on the skills that are most difficult for machines to replicate, such as solving unstructured problems, working flexibly with new information, carrying out nonroutine manual tasks, and accruing the knowledge, sense of history, appreciation for cultural context, and “human skills” that are indispensable not just for the marketplace but for civic life and rich personal lives as well. Since a foundation in the liberal arts will be part of the answer for salaried and gig workers alike, then a quality liberal arts education must be available and accessible to everyone, regardless of social or economic background.

Finally, the possible future intensification of automation and a larger itinerant workforce could require colleges to think about their students much differently. Currently, their relationship to their students undergoes a dramatic shift at the moment of graduation, when learners become alumni. But in a future in which every college graduate would someday need to add to existing skills or learn entirely new ones, alumni could begin to look like students again—lifelong learners who begin as undergraduates and then return periodically throughout their lives for new knowledge and retraining. In such a scenario, many colleges and universities would need to develop whole new models and even cultures to provide learning opportunities over a lifetime, thus helping students not only launch their careers but advance in and pivot to new careers over time, adopting a philosophy whereby a student today is a student always.


Factor #3: A Free Flow of Information and Data


Digital giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon already gather enough data on their users to be able to identify, with increasing precision, habits and preferences of all kinds and therefore predict a person’s commercial and perhaps even political choices. The commercial and research potential of such data collection is seemingly limitless (as is the potential for misuse). Computer scientists are now empowered to pursue new methods in predictive analytics and cognitive computing that will have broad applications in health and climate science, historical research, polling and opinion research, economics, and dozens of other fields. In many respects, corporations are leading the way, collecting consumer data of all kinds in order to refine their products, customer service, and marketing strategies.

At the same time, the ubiquity of the smartphone and the ongoing digitization of the world’s libraries have made a substantial portion of human factual knowledge available—at least in theory—to just about everyone on the planet, no matter where they live or travel. Both trends appear to be irreversible. In the not-so-distant future, universal access to scholarly knowledge may be considered a realistic human goal, perhaps even a right (although the universal capability to understand this knowledge is by no means guaranteed), and, far more problematically, the information accumulated on individuals may be considered a public resource rather than a private trove to be protected.

Many fields and institutions will be affected by these technologies, including government and healthcare, but few could be affected as profoundly as education, in which transformative innovations like massive virtual data warehouses and new teaching platforms could be used to improve and accelerate educational delivery, and personalize and verify certain types of student learning, in ways that cannot yet be imagined.

Although the higher education sector has voiced strong concerns over the collection of too much student data for fear of invading student privacy and breaking trust with parents, it may be only a matter of time before the benefits of massive data collection outweigh the risks, and the teaching establishment could harness the power of Big Data to improve educational delivery. (The recent experiences of Facebook and Google, who found their algorithmic data management exploited in the 2016 presidential campaign, provide a striking illustration of the risks that also accompany Big Data.) Colleges and universities will need to examine the issue rigorously and define their own parameters for the use of student data, balancing privacy concerns with the potential of Big Data to help refine and personalize teaching and advising. Colleges and universities may even take the lead in the public debate about the proper use of personal data more generally. On a comparatively small scale, some institutions, as noted earlier in this report, have adopted predictive analytics as a way to monitor student performance and boost graduation rates, with positive results. And several for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, as well as a handful of nonprofit institutions, have begun more ambitious efforts to track students and alumni throughout their lives to better understand the long-term impact of their offerings. But such initiatives are only in their infancy. As early adopters of Big Data techniques demonstrate encouraging results, many others will be likely to follow suit, forcing colleges and universities to struggle with difficult ethical and practical questions surrounding the tradeoffs associated with the collection and use of data.

Teachers and researchers will have increasing access to large data sets that can help evaluate student progress and teacher success more generally. For example, the ENGAGE program created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is exploring how to optimize educational content and instruction from data gleaned through interactive technologies used by tens of thousands of K-12 students served by the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity, a government-sponsored organization responsible for educating the children of military personnel around the world. And a DARPA initiative to teach information systems administration in the U.S. Navy created a digital tutor program modeled after expert human tutoring approaches. An evaluation of the program found that trainees who used the digital tutor program for 16 weeks outperformed students with more than double that in classroom time and sailors with seven years of experience.107

A national repository of such data focused on undergraduate education, based on an agreed-upon set of standards and carefully enforced privacy protocols, might advance the understanding of education—at the individual, institutional, and systemic levels—as rapidly as Big Data have advanced the understanding of the human genome. Nevertheless, a great deal of further development still needs to happen to go from predicting an individual’s purchasing habits to understanding and fostering how a student comprehends complex and challenging academic material. This would be a jump of great magnitude that is still quite far from being realized. It should also be remembered, as stressed throughout this report, that some of the most important kinds of learning involve critical thinking, creative problem-solving, and successful human interaction. We have at this point little evidence that emerging learning technologies will find application in these areas.

A potential future developing out of a new willingness among institutions to gather and share student data would also benefit from the free distribution of basic knowledge through digitized libraries and museums as well as by the next generation of MOOC offerings. The continued expansion of online lectures, digitized textbooks, and wikis of all kinds would not only continue to make information more widely available but could speed the evolution of teaching. Challenging problems will need to be faced. How can the hard work of discovering and communicating new knowledge and understanding be encouraged if the products of this work are immediately given away for free? How can people get better at identifying reliable sources of knowledge in a world where sense and nonsense are equally available?

Self-motivated students would no longer expect to learn basic skills in classroom settings when they could access such information through various online options like Khan Academy. There could be an acceleration in the shift toward reserving classroom time (in brick-and-mortar or online settings) for hands-on demonstrations, personalized instruction, and collaborative explorations—or else for hybrid models tailored to each individual student’s needs. In one version of an ideal future, students from all backgrounds would have access not only to these technologically enabled learning opportunities but also to the concomitant personal mentoring and support needed to fully benefit from them.

In many ways, primary and secondary education are already leading the way. Adaptive learning software such as Mindspark, ALEKS, and Knewton—which identify patterns in student learning and adjust to correct the most common errors—are already yielding notable results, including higher test scores among K-12 students.108 Private and charter school networks like AltSchool and Summit Public Schools—both of which are connected to Silicon Valley companies and entrepreneurs—are testing the limits of traditional classroom teaching, offering personalized lesson platforms and tailoring content on individual student tablets, among other methods.109 The effectiveness of these methods is not fully established, and these programs are not yet scalable for the entire nation, but they indicate a data-based and, potentially, more effective way for primary and secondary education to evolve and improve. For undergraduate education, they suggest that tomorrow’s students will be very different from the students of the past. If precollege education develops as is speculated here, undergraduates of the future will expect their education to be tailored to their individual needs and ways of learning and will be less dependent upon any of the usual methods. In this imagined future, meeting the expectations of tomorrow’s students will require colleges and universities to make a concerted effort to evolve and modernize quickly. Again, the United States would do well to ensure that all undergraduates of the future, regardless of background, have equal access to and support for engaging in the most advanced, high-quality learning experiences available.

The combination of these two phenomena—the sweeping collection of student data and the free, digital distribution of basic human information—could fundamentally alter the way education has been delivered for centuries. The change would be iterative, and possibly the result of a dizzying period of experimentation, perhaps accompanied by unintended and unwanted consequences, but the results could be truly transformative if all of the possibilities are fully realized. And while total transformation is a possibility, such deep changes may take place only in part, or even not at all.


Factor #4: A Vulnerable Planet


The past two decades have demonstrated that the ordinary circumstances of everyday life—our capabilities, our goals, our challenges—can change in an instant, perhaps more quickly than at any other time in human history. The era of the iPhone and the rise of social media, both technologies transformative in ways that are only beginning to be understood, have also been the decades of global terrorism, the Great Recession, and an acceleration in the degradation of the natural environment. In a moment, the breakthroughs and catastrophes of yesterday can seem like distant memories. Colleges and universities are not immune to the forces of rapid change, natural or human made. In fact, they are well positioned to help society respond thoughtfully and effectively by examining new ideas, teaching new skills, and producing new research. Their importance will only be amplified in a future characterized by transformative discovery or world-changing cataclysm, and they would serve the world more effectively by maintaining a certain level of financial, curricular, and intellectual flexibility in order to meet unforeseen challenges.

Over the past 150 years, higher education has displayed its true value in times of rapid change, the inflection points that follow great discovery or great calamity. During the Civil War, the Morrill Act created a set of public institutions designed to prepare a wide segment of the population for the changes, including mass industrialization, that would certainly follow. After World War II, the G.I. Bill expanded educational access to accommodate vast numbers of returning soldiers in an effort to heal a nation once weakened by war and economic depression and to propel a new era of innovation and productivity. During the Cold War, the nation’s universities responded to the launch of Sputnik by expanding their research agenda and nurturing new expertise as well as by working closely with government and business to foster new discoveries. Today, American colleges and universities are addressing an array of national and global challenges—among them, the provision of clean air and water, food, medicine, energy, universal education, human rights, and the assurance of physical safety—through ambitious research and, perhaps just as important, by attempting to model a safe and sustainable future to the next generation of leaders. These are not mere historical anecdotes. They are, instead, proof of the importance of higher education in times of crisis, when people are feeling most vulnerable and when change is most dramatic.

The great challenge for higher education, as for any sector, is the unpredictability of sweeping change, the suddenness with which it demands attention, and the unintended consequences that can ripple through society when the dust clears. In addition to higher education’s unquestionably great achievements in times of rapid change, it has also been forced to respond to challenges like the rise of McCarthyism in the 1950s, the student riots and occupations of the late 1960s, new limits on international recruitment following the terrorist attacks of 2001, and the politicization of scientific research today. It is impossible to plan for every possibility; inevitably, the nation will be caught off guard by some future development—domestic or international terrorism, war, climate change, political upheaval, and so on. Yet higher education is often better prepared than any other sector to respond effectively and productively to surprise because it values the breadth of human knowledge as well as its depth. It supports scholarship and teaching in global health even when there is no immediate threat of an outbreak, or the study of a distant culture long before international conflict makes such knowledge a national imperative. There is always room for improvement, especially in the translation of research and discovery for public use. For a variety of reasons—institutional policies, arduous regulations, poor communications strategies, and so on—important information often fails to reach an audience beyond campus walls. Nevertheless, the ideal that drives higher education—to teach and study over a broad range, without preordained limits—lends it a special status in times of crisis: it becomes a source of resilience and, hopefully, of progress.

Recent reports of the American Academy—including The Heart of the Matter on humanistic inquiry, ARISE and Restoring the Foundation on the importance of basic scientific research, and the publications of The Lincoln Project on public research universities110—have all documented the wisdom and social benefits of a broad and expanding portfolio of teaching and research. A future characterized by real uncertainty and increasing vulnerability will require a richer fund of knowledge than the nation possesses today—if only as preparation for a seemingly infinite variety of potential scenarios. And this knowledge must be shared as broadly as possible. Every American must acquire the breadth of knowledge that is the basis of resilience and creativity in the face of accelerating change. In this regard, higher education serves as both a safeguard and a source of new hope for present and future generations.



103. Commission on Language Learning, America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century (Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2017), 11–12.

104. Bureau of Labor Statistics,

105. Jamie Merisotis, America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating, and Deploying the 21st Century Workforce (New York: Rosetta Books, 2016), 79–80.

106. Most colleges and universities will likely increasingly introduce variations of e-badging and microdegrees, and much of this activity will take place at the postgraduate level, which is beyond the focus of this report. However, the federal government is already experimenting with aid programs that support micro-master’s programs. Eventually, the entire structure of student financial aid may have to be restructured to ensure that microdegrees will be available to students of every economic background.

107. DARPA,; and J. D. Fletcher and John E. Morrison, DARPA Digital Tutor: Assessment Data (Alexandria, Va.: Institute for Defense Analysis, 2012),

108. “Machine Learning,” The Economist 424 (9050) (July 22–28, 2017): 16.

109. Ibid.

110. See The Heart of the Matter; ARISERestoring the Foundation, and The Lincoln Project