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A Call to Reform Undergraduate Education
By Colleen Flaherty
November 30, 2017

Major study by American Academy of Arts and Sciences seeks change in curriculum and assessment, commitment to funding public higher education, new ideas about the faculty role, and more.

American Academy of Arts and Sciences

What was once a challenge of quantity in American undergraduate education is increasingly a challenge of educational quality. In other words, getting as many students as possible to attend college means little if they’re not learning what they need to and -- crucially -- if they don’t graduate. That’s the recurring message of a new report, “The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America,” from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

More than a challenge, the report says, delivering on educational quality and completion is a must -- not only for institutions but the country. The U.S. is more diverse and technology based than ever, and workers can expect to change careers multiple times, it says, perhaps eventually transitioning to jobs that don’t yet exist. College-educated Americans also enjoy a higher quality of life than their high school-educated peers across a variety of measures and are more able to pay off college debt.

Simply put, the report says, “The completion of a few college courses is not a sufficient education in the 21st century.”

How to achieve educational quality? The report proposes a collective, national approach. Specifically, the report urges a three-part “national strategy” ensuring that students have high-quality learning experiences, that institutions increase their overall completion rates and reduce inequities among student groups, and that college costs are controlled.

The academy is optimistic about the power of technology in helping achieve educational quality. But advances such as predictive analytics for student success have yet to enter the academic mainstream, the report says, and there is no time to waste waiting for them to do so. The academy estimates some of the report’s goals will take decades to realize, even with immediate action.

A Case for Public Investment in Higher Ed

Again, the report doesn’t suggest that institutions go it alone. In terms of funding, it pushes for greater public investment in higher education.

The commission behind the report asked Moody’s Analytics to help it understand the scope of investments required to change course, and the consulting firm determined that an “ambitious yet achievable” improvement in college completion rates would require substantial investments over a decade or more. But that would also translate to “significant improvement” in U.S. economic productivity over the long term, Moody’s found.

One model, based on a 20-year projection, for example, forecasts an annual growth in the gross domestic product that is nearly 10 percent higher than it would be without substantial public investment in postsecondary education -- an increase large enough to recover the initial investments and continue to grow the economy, according to the report.

“While the analysis focuses on the economic side of this development, there is every reason to believe that an investment in students would yield other, less easily quantified returns as well,” the commission wrote, “including gains such as greater intercultural understanding, increased civic participation leading to a stronger democracy and more rewarding lives for graduates.”

Just as the nation “must reinvest in its physical infrastructure -- roads, bridges, railways and so on -- as a stimulus for communication and commerce of all kinds,” the report reads, “the U.S. should commit to a comparable reinvestment in our existing educational infrastructure, including undergraduate education, in order to realize the productive potential of all Americans.”

Focus on Teaching

As for ensuring quality, the commission says that too little attention is currently paid to the undergraduate 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 21st-century U.S.”

All college graduates need their programs of study to impart a “forward-looking” combination of academic knowledge and practical skills in preparation for both economic success and civic engagement. Echoing arguments made by many educators of late, the commission asserts that the long-standing debate over the value of a liberal arts education versus a more “applied” program is a “false choice.” Institutions must adjust their curricula accordingly, the report says, 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.”

Still, the commission notes that advancing a broad learning agenda and more attention to instruction will remain difficult until it’s easier to measure what (and if) students are actually learning. “Redressing this lack of good data is a high priority,” the report says.

“Students learn in many different settings, including through peer interactions, co- and extracurricular activities, and self-motivated exploration,” the commission wrote. “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.”

University systems and individual campuses, academic departments and disciplinary associations all have roles to play in advancing teaching, according to the academy. Master’s and doctoral programs should integrate “meaningful and explicit” teacher training opportunities, for example. Disciplinary associations should lead research and professional development efforts exploring the relationship between teaching practices and student learning.

Institutions, meanwhile, must make a “systemic commitment” to the improvement of college teaching -- something the commission says will most likely require ongoing review of faculty teaching practices, analyzing the faculty incentive system, bettering mentoring and faculty supports, and including teaching quality as a key part of tenure and other personnel decisions. In a nod to shared governance, the report notes that much of that work “must take place in collaboration with academic departments.”

Faculty members need training on how to teach diverse groups of students and help them “grapple with difference,” the report says. It also addresses a major structural issue that is often ignored in discussions about educational quality: professors teaching off the tenure track. The commission says that quality necessarily means providing these professors “with stable professional working environments and careers … 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.”

The trend toward adjunct professors in undergraduate teaching will persist “as long as colleges are under pressure to keep costs down and universities continue to produce more Ph.D.s in some fields than are likely to find tenure-track employment,” the report says. As institutions continue to hire teaching-focused instructors, they should aim to make positions longer term and full-time.

Such 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,” the commission wrote.

As for the curriculum, the report says that 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,” the report says. It also endorses further experimentation with strategies for teaching and supporting students in online, hybrid and technology-supported environments. Further, federal and state governments should invest in a research and development strategy for better understanding instructional design and delivery and for assessing learning.

Completion, Completion, Completion

The commission envisions a future that depends on most Americans getting a high-quality undergraduate education. To improve completion rates, the report calls on college and university leaders to make the issue a top priority -- even making resource allocation decisions through that “lens.” Data collection should enable institution-specific insights through nuanced analyses and enable effective student interventions, and students should have the opportunities to make “meaningful, personal connections” with faculty and staff.

Special attention should be paid to understanding and assisting students from groups with the lowest competition rates, the report says, noting that summer bridge programs, accelerated remediation and the provision of emergency funds are examples of proven strategies. The commission also advocates expanded experimentation with and research on guided-pathways designs.

“Design elements include clear guidelines for students to earn credentials and to further their education or career employment, mapped so course sequences and postcompletion choices are transparent,” the report says, along with faster and better on-ramps to college-level learning for underprepared students; strong, ongoing guidance and mentoring on academic and career decision making; and technology-assisted advising.

Student transfer also should be better understood and assisted at the national level, the commission says, since one-third of college students change institutions at least once, and about half of public university graduates began their studies in community colleges. Employer partnerships with colleges and universities also “play an important part in improving college completion rates and helping students understand the relevance of their education to future employment, develop important workplace skills and explore potential career pathways,” the commission notes. It also encourages federal and state government leadership to enact “comprehensive and coordinated strategies” to make college completion a top national and state priority, such as by using discretionary funds for grants that encourage evidence-based approaches to improving completion.

Pushing for more transparency about completion rates, the report also asks the federal government to build a student unit record data system -- removing identifying information -- on institutional, state and national trends on college outcomes. Colleges and universities, meanwhile, should provide all college-going students and their families “with easy access to accurate and relevant information to inform their college choices, including the actual costs of the academic program to student and family, the likelihood of completing the program, and the prospects for employment or further education after graduation.”

Less Debt, More Affordability

The commission underscores that increasing quality cannot mean making college more expensive. It says that increasing the rates at which students succeed is likely “the best antidote to unmanageable student debt.”

Beyond that, the commission says that the current financial aid system is “far more complex and confusing than it needs to be, and too much public money is being wasted.” The federal government should take further steps to simplify -- or even eliminate -- the process of applying via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, relying more on financial information already available from the Internal Revenue Service to determine eligibility, it says. And the Pell Grant system should provide grants that support students completing 30 credits at any time throughout the course of a calendar year.

Other recommendations include designing a single income-driven repayment plan in which students are automatically enrolled and loan payments are collected through the income tax system at a sensible rate. The committee also endorses experimenting with alternative financing, such as income-sharing agreements that allow college students to borrow from colleges or investors. Under such agreements, the lender then receives a percentage of the student’s after-graduation income.

Putting pressure on institutions with low graduation rates, the committee also suggests “institutional risk sharing,” by which institutions whose students are chronically unable to repay their loans reimburse the government a fraction of the unpaid balance. That’s providing such institutions continue to honor their access missions, however, according to the report.

The committee also advocates tracking student progress across institutions and linking continued aid to “satisfactory academic progress across multiple institutions.”

In what’s likely to be perceived as a particularly controversial suggestion, the committee suggests revising eligibility rules so as not to finance students attending “low-performing institutions that have extremely low graduation rates.”

The report further recommends developing incentives for states to sustain or increase funding for public higher education. States must continue to take the lead on funding higher education, the committee wrote, but as fiscal pressures on state-run colleges and universities are “likely to be unrelenting,” it is “essential that both government decision makers and leaders on campus focus on directing resources to the highest priorities.”

Such priorities include directing scarce resources to students they’ll most impact, the most disadvantaged. The committee also suggests that policy makers work with institutions toward aligning funding and program completion.

In an introduction to the report, Jonathan Fanton, president of the American Academy, quoted its conclusion: “Progress is not guaranteed, and good things will happen only with sustained effort, but if we can sustain focus on the work, combining patience with urgency, we can, through undergraduate education, make great advances as individuals and as a nation.”

Expectations for Change

The American Academy will release its report this morning. It was written by the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education over a two-year period, during which it consulted a wide range of experts and organizations. The commission itself included college and foundation presidents, academics, and financial and other experts. In the run-up to this final report, the commission published papers including “The Complex Universe of Alternative Postsecondary Credentials and Pathways,” “Undergraduate Financial Aid in the U.S.,” “Policies and Practices to Support Undergraduate Teaching Improvement,” and “The Economic Impact of Increasing College Completion.”

The commission has previewed its work for small groups ahead of the today’s release. Those who have seen the report in advance include Laura Auricchio, professor of art history and vice provost for curriculum and learning at the New School. Auricchio said Wednesday that “The Future of Undergraduate Education” highlights data that point to the need to “reframe some of the terms of the national conversation about higher education, and also to rethink the ways institutions and students alike respond to the very real obstacles that often impede student success.”

Regarding student debt, for example, she said, the report notes that public discourse tends to focus on the most extreme anecdotes -- students who graduate with massive loans to repay -- when the students most likely to default are those who take out relatively small loans but never earn a degree.

Michael McPherson, the report’s co-chair and past president of both Macalester College and the Spencer Foundation, told Inside Higher Ed that improving higher education is “essential to the nation’s future.” That said, he described the commission’s report as distinctive in that it defines undergraduate education broadly, to include community colleges and for-profit institutions, and puts students “front and center.”

In focusing on quality, he said, “we were of course interested in the problem of poor program completion, because the evidence is that students benefit greatly from completing a degree or certificate.” But the committee was also interested in what students learned, and in particular “whether their education went beyond imparting near-term job skills and also helped develop their capacities for critical thinking, problem solving and communication,” McPherson added.

Underscoring the committee’s rejection of the liberal-versus-practical education debate, McPherson said, “The fact is that an education that aims only to enable you to get a job will quickly become obsolete, so these broader skills of reasoning and communication should find a place in all of education.”

Underscoring, too, the report’s focus on instruction, McPherson said college teaching should be “restored to a position of greater respect and attention.” Non-tenure-track faculty members “are here to stay, and those teachers need to be valued, respected and given the opportunity for professional growth.” He added, “We think this message applies very widely -- from the research university to the community college and everywhere in between.” (Even liberal arts colleges don’t always meet that standard, McPherson noted.)

As for the report’s major recommendations on college affordability, McPherson said the committee doesn’t expect an “infusion of funds from governments or elsewhere that will reverse recent funding trends.” But it wants to least to see the declines in per-student funding halted, he said. And colleges can also do much to make graduation more likely and college more affordable of their students.


 
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