Office of External Affairs

February 25, 2019

From the VP – The Future of Undergraduate Education

Randy Hodgins

It is pretty rare during the hectic days of a legislative session to can take a short break from committee hearings and member meetings to immerse yourself in some of the latest thinking about the challenges facing higher education in the United States in 2019.  But last Wednesday in Olympia, about 50 representatives from public and private higher education institutions and associations had the chance to do just that when representatives from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences paid a visit to the state capital to discuss their most recent report “The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America.”

Completed last year, the report focuses on three challenges currently facing undergraduate education – completion, quality and affordability.  Each of these issues is also top of mind for the UW as well as our fellow baccalaureate and community and technical college partners.  Michael McPherson from the Spencer Foundation, who co-chaired the Commission which completed the report, and Sandy Baum from the Urban Institute, a Commission member, walked us through the reports major findings a recommendations for policymakers.

Perhaps one of the most important conclusions is that “access” to higher education is not as much of an issue as it was a generation or two ago.  More than 90% of U.S. students managed to find their way into a two or four year institution within a few years of high school graduation.  The major challenge facing higher education today is completion – insuring that students finish their two or four year degree and are able to secure a family wage job upon graduation.  Some barriers to completion are surely financial and so affordability remains an important goal for state policymakers who are working this session to make the State Need Grant an entitlement program so that is will be protected from future economic downturns.

But there are other barriers to degree completion that require greater investments in two and four year institutional budgets to ensure quality faculty and staff, sufficient courses, adequate academic, transfer and mental health counseling – all key ingredients to ensuring students can persist to a two or four year credential.  It’s a solid report and the lunchtime event sponsored by the College Promise Coalition was a unique chance to pause in the middle of a busy legislative session to refocus on the important reasons why we are all pushing to have elected officials make 2019 the year of higher education.