Higher ed's top 3 priorities for 2018

A report from the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences makes three recommendations to improve undergraduate education today, based on two years of research.

In the report, the Commission notes that a huge shift has undertaken American higher education in recent years. Previously, the main challenge in higher ed was one of "quantity," of enrolling as many students from as many different backgrounds as possible, the authors write.

But increasingly, the main challenge is becoming one of "quality," ensuring that all students complete their studies and succeed in their "personal, professional, and civic lives," they write. To adapt to this new goal, the Commission identifies three priorities for higher education in 2018.

1: Ensure students in all fields develop 21st-century skills

The line between liberal arts and applied programs is increasingly "a false choice," the authors write, noting that students in all programs face a rapidly changing economy and more competition for jobs. The Commission calls for a greater focus on educational quality in all programs, as well as a focus on ensuring that all programs include a balance of academic, practical, and civic knowledge and skills.

To achieve this goal, the Commission argues that higher ed institutions should put more emphasis on teaching skills when training, hiring, and providing ongoing professional development for faculty. The authors also call for improving the stability of and support for nontenure-track positions, which are often focused on teaching. Finally, the Commission encourages colleges to continue experimenting with new models of online and hybrid courses. These formats show great potential to expand access and flexibility for students, but the authors argue that the potential hasn't yet been fully realized.

Finally, measuring progress toward this goal will require better ways to measure student learning, the authors write.

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2: Improve retention and graduation for all students

The authors argue that completion rates are still too low at American colleges and universities, writing that students who leave college before earning a credential are "worse off than when they entered" because they struggle to repay student debt. Furthermore, the authors note, the student population will only grow more diverse in the coming decades, putting more pressure on colleges to improve their support systems.

Smart data collection and analysis are critical for achieving this goal, the authors argue. The best data practices will empower institutional leaders to identify which student groups are struggling and what kinds of interventions would help them.

The authors also encourage colleges to focus on two areas for improvement that some innovative institutions are already working on: guided pathways and transfer student success. Many colleges have found that guided pathways have helped them improve completion rates and reduce time-to-degree, the authors note. And, as a separate report found earlier this year, transfer students face a number of barriers, such as losing credits during the transfer process.

Finally, the report encourages colleges to partner with local governments, P-12 schools, and employers to help create smoother pipelines into and out of college.

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3: Remove financial barriers for students

The Commission acknowledges that colleges are facing their own financial challenges, but argues that institutions should devote the limited resources they have to making college more affordable for all students. However, the authors also argue that colleges should make strategic investments in supporting student completion and success, because this will help reduce the number of students who have student debt but no degree.

The authors call for a number of policy changes to streamline the federal financial aid process, including institutional risk-sharing policies that would require higher ed institutions to pay a portion of student loans for graduates who are unable to make their payments.

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At the institutional level, the Commission argues that colleges should invest in better teaching and student support, both of which can help improve efficiency and reduce cost per graduate. The authors also recommend building a stronger culture of cost-saving innovation. Finally, they recommend channeling financial aid to the most vulnerable students and making costs more transparent for students and families.

The authors acknowledge that it may take years—or even decades—to fully implement the recommendations. However, they argue, this is one reason to begin working on them as soon as possible (Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education report, accessed 12/27).

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