Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education:  New Report!


Dear Commons Community,

The Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education has just published a report, A Primer on the College Student Journey,  that takes an in-depth view of undergraduate education.  Published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, it has a number of excellent data tables (see sample above) that provide a clear picture of the state of  higher education in this country.  Below are the Preface and the “Top Ten Takeaways” from the report.




Undergraduate education continues to be one of the most important avenues of opportunity in American society, though the landscape is changing rapidly: there are more options than ever before for how and when Americans receive some form of a college experience. New populations of students attend nonprofit public and private colleges and universities as well as for-profit institutions to earn bachelor’s and associate degrees and certificates through face-to-face, online, and hybrid courses. Students of all ages study part time or full time, often at multiple institutions according to schedules that fit their lives, earning credentials ranging from a bachelor’s in philosophy after four years of study to a certificate in medical assisting after four months of study. At the same time, emerging opportunities outside of the traditional boundaries of colleges and universities are increasingly responding to learner’s needs, blurring the lines across postsecondary educational providers and student learning opportunities.

To address these topics and provide ideas for ensuring that individual Americans receive the education they need to thrive in the twenty-first century, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, with generous funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, established the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. Over the next several years, the Commission, comprising national leaders in education, business, and government, will study how well students are being served by today’s higher education models and will seek to identify the challenges and opportunities that higher education will encounter in the decades ahead.

As a starting point, the Commission requested the creation of a publication that compiled the best data and research available to convey the story of the major trends in undergraduate education through the framework of the student journey into, through, and beyond college. A Primer on the College Student Journey will both serve as a foundation for the Commission’s ongoing work and be of significant interest to college and university employees, higher education policy-makers and philanthropists, business and industry leaders, and students and their families. This brief volume focuses on the pathways students of various backgrounds follow through the abundance of higher education options ostensibly available to them. Further Commission reports will focus more narrowly on topics including student learning, effective teaching, and financial aid.

In view of the data presented throughout this publication, we want to acknowledge areas of real strength and accomplishment. It is encouraging to see increasingly higher rates of college enrollment across diverse student populations, with almost 90 percent of high school graduates eventually spending some time in college. We are also encouraged by serious efforts at inclusiveness on traditional residential campuses as well as by the expansion of learning opportunities better suited to the goals and life situations of millions of people who in an earlier day could not realistically consider college as an option.

Conversely, our greatest concerns center on the disparities in educational attainment associated with race and ethnicity, income level, and gender. We also note that more students are borrowing more money to pay for college and that those students most likely to default on their loans are those who do not graduate. And we believe that colleges and universities of all types must graduate students at higher rates in a timelier manner.

The complexities and challenges our student learners bring to our college campuses need to be at the forefront of our understanding of how our country can best anticipate and respond to their individual needs, as well as the needs of our nation.

We want to thank the Commission’s Data Advisory Group—a team of five nationally recognized higher education researchers—who provided invaluable guidance in this data-rich portrait of American postsecondary education, as well as Zack Mabel, Esperanza Johnson, Eliza Berg, and Francesca Purcell, who assisted in its writing.

We invite you to keep up to date with subsequent publications, meetings, and activities by visiting

Michael S. McPherson, President, Spencer Foundation

 Roger W. Ferguson, Jr., President and CEO, TIAA

Jonathan F. Fanton President, American Academy of Arts and Sciences




Top Ten Takeaways

  1. College attainment rates are troublingly unequal: Among twenty-five- to twenty-nineyear-olds, in 2015, 50 percent of women had a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with 41 percent of men. Similarly, 72 percent of Asian students earned an associate degree or higher compared with 54 percent of white, 31 percent of black, and 27 percent of Hispanic students. In a related study, only 36 percent of students from low-income families earned a bachelor’s degree compared with 54 percent of students from high-income families.
  2. Many college students are academically unprepared for college: One-half of all college students take remedial courses.
  3.  More students are borrowing more: The proportion of college graduates who took out federal loans increased from about 50 to 60 percent from 2000 to 2012; the median cumulative loan amount increased nearly 25 percent from about $16,500 to $20,400.
  4.  Students who do not graduate are most likely to default: Students who do not graduate and who take out the smallest loan amounts have the highest default rates.
  5.  Too few students graduate and too few graduate on time: Only about 60 percent of students earn a bachelor’s degree, taking, on average, almost six years to complete their studies. Only 29 percent of students who start a certificate or associate degree at a two-year college earn a credential within three years.
  6.  The vast majority of students go to college: More than 85 percent of students who graduated from high school enrolled in college within eight years.
  7.  Most students get in: More than 70 percent of undergraduates attend colleges that accept over 50 percent of their applicants, while only 1 percent of students attend colleges that accept less than 10 percent of applicants.
  8.  Students overwhelmingly go public: Choosing among over 4,700 different higher education institutions, almost 80 percent of fall undergraduates are enrolled in public colleges and universities.
  9.  Adults and part-timers matter: Students over the age of twenty-five make up 31 percent of the undergraduate population and students who study part time make up 37 percent; an additional 20 percent of American adults have earned some college credit but no degree.
  10.  It’s not just about the baccalaureate: Of recently awarded undergraduate credentials, less than half (48 percent) were bachelor’s degrees, while 26 percent were associate degrees and 25 percent were certificates.

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