Another Commission Will Take On the Future of Higher Education

November 04, 2015

The "future of higher education" landscape — already ringing with cacophonous predictions from all manner of task forces, books, conferences, and self-styled disruptors — is about to get another. This week the American Academy of Arts and Sciences will announce its own Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education.

The commission, which will include more than two dozen leaders from academe, business, and politics, has given itself an ambitious goal: to examine "the vast — and expanding — array of learning options" now available to students and to identify the challenges and opportunities higher education will confront in the next 20 to 25 years.

The commission faces a double challenge: producing a report that not only doesn’t die on a shelf but also distinguishes itself in an environment already rich with ideas and visions from so many others.

"There’s a lot of stuff out there, no question about it," says Michael S. McPherson, who will be co-chair of the commission with Roger W. Ferguson Jr., president of TIAA-CREF.

The higher-education sector is 'a noisier landscape because it's more important than it's ever been.'
But Mr. McPherson, who plans to retire next summer as president of the education-focused Spencer Foundation, says he hopes the commission’s work will cut through the noise with findings that are comprehensive in their scope and "really well-grounded in evidence."

Right now, "a lot of misinformation" is part of the discourse on higher education, he says, and it’s "used in misleading ways." For example, Mr. McPherson says, the popular news media often focus on the minority of people with $100,000-plus in student-loan debt while ignoring the larger number who failed to graduate but who are struggling to repay their smaller levels of debt.

Looking Beyond Traditional Colleges

The commission plans to be broad in its outlook, examining not only traditional two- and four-year colleges but also for-profit institutions, providers of MOOCs and other alternative offerings, and the apprenticeship movement. The panelists include representatives of those constituencies as well, including Daphne Koller, a co-founder of the MOOC company Coursera, and J. Michael Locke, a former chief executive of Rasmussen, a for-profit-college company.

The academy said the commission would also focus on the needs of older adult students, who now make up about a third of the undergraduate population.

The commission’s work will be financed with a $2.2-million grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Carnegie’s president, Vartan Gregorian, publicly floated the idea of a White House commission on the future of higher education three years ago, hoping that the U.S. president’s imprimatur would advance the effort. But that idea never took hold. Instead, the commission will be sponsored by the 235-year-old academy, one of the country's oldest learned societies and one that is known for projects like its "Heart of the Matter" report on the value of the humanities and social sciences.

Mr. McPherson says he expects the first year of the commission’s three-year effort to be focused on developing a primer — with the help of well-known higher-education economists and others — on topics like college costs, enrollment and completion trends, demographic trends, and expectations about labor markets. (The academics to be enlisted for that effort are Thomas Bailey and Judith Scott-Clayton of Columbia University’s Teachers College, Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute, Ronald G. Ehrenberg of Cornell University, and Bridget Terry Long of Harvard University.)

After that, Mr. McPherson says, the commission will turn to "what are the really big and important things we have to worry about." The panel will have periodic meetings and invite public comment, he says.

Myriad Forces Shaping Higher Ed

The fate of higher education is increasingly being shaped not only by state and federal policy but also by technological advances and trends like the "unbundling" of the role of the professor with the rise of online education and interactive courseware. Although some of those innovations are beyond the control of policy makers and colleges, Mr. McPherson says, the commission absolutely will "not want to ignore the forces that are coming at traditional higher ed."

The commission will nonetheless be mindful that the predictions that outside organizations or trends "are going to devastate and lay waste to traditional higher ed" have not come to pass.

Mr. McPherson says he hopes the commission will issue its report by 2017. That timing would put its release after the presidential election and possibly after the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. He says he’s not concerned about "external clocks" and would rather the commission take its time and get things right.

"The element of deliberation is really important," Mr. McPherson says.

The commission is expected to operate for three years. Its last year will involve outreach and dissemination. For the report to have an impact, the academy, based in Cambridge, Mass., and the commission will have "to be heard in D.C. and to be heard nationally," Mr. McPherson says.

That, he says, will be a challenge. The higher-education sector is "a noisier landscape because it’s more important than it’s ever been," both to individuals and to the nation. But amid all that chatter, Mr. McPherson adds, some "genuinely thoughtful" ideas should still matter.

The Panelists

Other commission members, named so far, are:

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University

Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education

Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the Urban Institute

Rebecca M. Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison

John Seely Brown, former director of Xerox PARC research

Carl A. Cohn, clinical professor of education at Claremont Graduate University

Mitch E. Daniels Jr., president of Purdue University

John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University

Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Kissinger Associates and former under secretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County

Jennifer L. Jennings, assistant professor of sociology at New York University

Jeremy Johnson, co-founder and chief executive of Andela

Sherry Lansing, chief executive of the Sherry Lansing Foundation

Nicholas Lemann, former dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York

Diana Natalicio, president of the University of Texas at El Paso

Hilary Pennington, vice president of the Ford Foundation

Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College

Shirley M. Tilghman, former president of Princeton University

P. Roy Vagelos, former president of Merck & Co.

Michelle Weise, executive director of Southern New Hampshire University’s Sandbox Collaborative

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at