Recent years have highlighted injustices in higher education that affect us all. Although many institutions have made significant strides in university entry and graduation, we know that racial and socioeconomic disparities remain far too great, even as student demographics diversify dramatically. But the pandemic has not only exposed these gaps; it has expanded them and increased the urgency of higher education to fulfill its promise of equity and excellence.
In fact, justice and excellence are inextricably linked. And for all the challenges the pandemic has posed for higher education, it also showed that research universities and others could change — sometimes overnight — to provide better education for millions of students. Now we must draw on this ability to change, as well as data and experience-based knowledge, to greatly strengthen undergraduate education at research universities.
Today, the Boyer 2030 Commission, which I co-chaired with Association of American Universities President Barbara Snyder, outlined a blueprint for doing just that in a new report for research universities. The report is a follow-up to the 1998 Boyer Commission, which issued a landmark report on undergraduate education at research universities. Basic education has been greatly strengthened, in part as institutions have adopted the changes recommended in this Boyer report. But more needs to be done.
We know that the cost of college is an entry issue for many students. Universities have and must continue to work hard to reduce spending even as they provide additional support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A key way to reduce student costs is by reducing the time to graduation, with a target of four years for most majors. Unless a student works long hours, they should take 15 credits per semester beginning in their freshman year. The shortening of the study period not only lowers the training costs, but also offers the chance of earlier employment.
The schools must of course do their part to enable faster completion. For example, we know that it really helps most students, but especially those from underserved groups, when institutions find clear academic pathways for students to graduate on time. Individual students need to know not only the courses they need, but also the order and optimal timing to take courses. This requires courses to always be available at the right time for the student’s course of study and requires the university to reconsider and change some long-standing procedures and practices. Many research universities have shown that strong educational pathways improve graduation rates and time to graduation.
A related effort is strong college counseling. There is evidence that strong counseling has a large impact on retention and graduation. Students need not just academic guidance, but holistic guidance that reflects their lived experiences, responsibilities, and needs. What were once termed non-traditional students are increasingly the norm and we must consider the diverse needs of students such as mental health care, food security, housing and childcare to ensure that every student benefits from the exceptional contributions of higher education.
For years we have known effective practices that can improve a student’s chances of graduating. These experiences, such as B. basic research, internships and stays abroad, broaden the horizons of the students and increase their opportunities after graduation. They propel students forward in their education, connect classroom learning to the world beyond, and inspire greater purpose, self-efficacy and curiosity. We know these experiences can be transformative and we need to ensure more students get the support they need to participate.
Digital technology is another important tool to drive retention and graduation. Institutions can take a multi-faceted approach – involving recruiting, advising, improving course delivery and providing assistance as needed – to reach all students, including those from underrepresented backgrounds, to meet their academic and non-academic needs and to support them to help you succeed in the classroom. Arizona State University and Georgia State University and other institutions have shown what can be achieved with technology.
These are just a few broad categories in which large-scale change across the sector is not only possible but imperative to close equity gaps and improve outcomes. Institutions will no doubt continue to identify new reforms, or approaches to implementing reforms, that improve student success, equity and excellence. Using data and tested experience as a compass, we can navigate to a place where institutions better serve all students—especially those from groups that are historically underserved. This is vital for research universities to achieve equity and excellence.