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Practical Fixes Could Improve Undergraduate Higher Ed

Could education be the vital ingredient that helps bring civility back to the national discourse and shows us how to bridge our differences? That's what a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences suggested. And technology will play a role — albeit not a starring one — in that outcome.

"The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America" is the final report in a set of research publications from the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, an Academy project begun in 2015. At the behest of the Carnegie Corporation of New York (and with its funding), the commission convened leaders from higher ed, philanthropy, business and government to assess the state of undergraduate education and make practical recommendations to improve colleges and universities and better position graduates for what they'll face in this century. Over the course of two years, commission members met with students and faculty members, education and industry experts, state and federal policymakers and foundations.

The report explored three broad priorities where schools should focus:

  • Ensuring that all students have high-quality educational experiences;
  • Increasing overall completion rates and reducing inequities among different student populations at every level of undergraduate education; and
  • Managing college costs and improving the affordability of undergraduate education.

Among the specific recommendations were suggestions to improve teacher training, provide non-tenure-track faculty with stable professional careers, support the integration of data and counseling, restructure the Pell system to encourage timely completion of credentials, establish a single income-driven repayment plan to simplify college borrowing and limit the need for future debt forgiveness, and create a tracking system for students that makes aid conditional on satisfactory academic progress.

On the technology front, the report's authors noted that while undergraduate education "has generally been slow to adopt new methodologies," a growing number of individual instructors have tried out video, digital textbooks, social media, mobile apps and digital gaming in their teaching. The most compelling tech-fronted changes, however, have occurred in two areas: the growth of online courses and the use of competency-based education (CBE).

While the report acknowledged that online learning can offer "equal if not better outcomes than traditional face-to-face courses," it also highlighted the challenge for some members of high-risk populations. "Academically underprepared students learn less in online courses than from equivalent courses with at least some face-to-face experience," the report stated. As a result, the potential for online education is "still largely untapped."

CBE, a particular topic of interest for the Carnegie Foundation, is among the "fastest-growing innovations" in education. Currently, the report cited, as many as 200,000 students are participating in 150 different CBE programs, and another 400 CBE programs are currently in development. Because these programs are so new, little research has been completed on the outcomes for students. The report urged schools to "encourage and incentivize such experiments," while also adopting objective assessment strategies to track their effectiveness and equitability across various student populations and prepare support for quick adoption should they show promise or prove successful.

"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," the report stated, concluding, "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."

"Our report proposes practical and actionable solutions for improving undergraduate education and for increasing the number of students who complete their education with valuable knowledge and free from unmanageable debt," said Commission Co-chair Roger Ferguson, Jr. in a prepared statement. "Our proposals are grounded in the firm conviction that every person, from every background, has the potential for success — and that they can achieve it with the proper training and preparation."

All of the report's materials, including the full report, a summary and related resources, are openly available on the academy's website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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