Liberal Education

Progress and Prospects for the Reform of Undergraduate Education: Results from the Latest Survey of AAC&U Members

Barely a week goes by without the release of yet another article or book making a case for “disruptive innovation” within higher education institutions. Commentators calling for disruption often begin from the premise that all traditional institutions are “stuck in the past” and resistant to change. In The End of College, for example, Kevin Carey describes how, in the face of student underachievement, leaders of “traditional” higher education simply “throw up their hands and say that nothing, really [can] be done. College is what it is, and has always been.”1 Not all commentators are as sweeping in their condemnation, and even Carey documents many examples of innovation in teaching and learning that are emerging both from outside and from within traditional institutions of higher education. But how resistant to change is higher education really? And how much change is actually needed?

Undoubtedly, undergraduate education is a very long way from where it needs to be in terms of preparing the next generation of students for success in an innovation-driven global economy and to help solve significant societal challenges. As the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has documented repeatedly, employers are “raising the bar” for what they expect from college graduates, and they are frustrated by the insufficient levels of knowledge and skill that too many college graduates bring to the workplace as new employees.2 Moreover, AAC&U’s ongoing VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) family of projects is documenting serious underachievement across undergraduate education in terms of key learning outcomes, including written communication, critical thinking, and quantitative literacy.3 Clearly, change is needed. The nation simply needs more from higher education, both in terms of the numbers of students who graduate and in terms of what those graduates know and can do with the skills they acquire in college.

Yet, while I am firmly convinced that undergraduate education is in need of significant reform, I see among AAC&U member institutions a lot of serious work to improve student outcomes. Many educational leaders and practitioners are working hard to make changes and improve educational outcomes. Carey and other commentators are wrong to suggest that higher education leaders have thrown up their hands. In fact, I believe that the reform of undergraduate education may have reached a tipping point, as various streams of work have begun to converge and are now poised for acceleration.

Promisingly, far more serious attention is being paid to issues of equity and inclusive excellence than ever before. Educators are developing new approaches to close achievement gaps among students from different backgrounds. There is broad recognition across higher education that far too many students from low-income backgrounds and historically underrepresented racial/ethnic groups are either not graduating from college at all or are graduating without the skills and knowledge they need to flourish and succeed.

So what really is the current state of undergraduate education reform? How are the approaches taken at colleges, community colleges, and universities changing to respond to the needs of a new generation of students, the demands of the contemporary workplace, the challenges of a global democracy? What more could be done to promote equity and inclusive excellence for today’s students?

To explore these and other, related questions, AAC&U recently commissioned Hart Research Associates to do a national survey of chief academic officers at its member institutions. The survey was conducted in 2015, and findings are summarized in three separate reports.4 As with the previous survey of AAC&U members, conducted in 2008–9,5 the respondents were representative of AAC&U’s total membership, which includes institutions of all types—public and private, two-year and four-year, large and small. The findings paint a portrait of undergraduate education reform, revealing how much progress has been made at institutions of varying types—and how much remains to be done.

Clarity of purpose

No higher education leader would ever say that he or she was not focused intensely on ensuring that all students “succeed.” And most would likely define “student success” in terms of reaching high levels of achievement on key proficiencies and reaching the finish line—i.e., graduating with a postsecondary credential that truly signifies attainment of those learning goals. But the truth is that, for many years, higher education institutions have not been particularly clear, at the level of the institution or program, about the specific learning goals for all students. Addressing this lack of clarity remains an important first step in any acceleration of the national undergraduate reform movement. The good news is that the latest AAC&U member survey reveals clear progress in this area.

Nearly all AAC&U member institutions have a set of learning outcomes that is common for all undergraduate students; 85 percent of academic leaders reported that their institutions have such outcomes, up from 78 percent in 2008–9. Perhaps even more importantly, especially for the purposes of informing the broader national dialogue about the meaning of “quality undergraduate education,” the survey found widespread consensus on the specific learning outcomes all students in all programs should achieve. Participants in each survey were asked whether specific skill and knowledge areas are included in their institution’s set of common learning outcomes. Table 1 compares the findings, showing the percentages of respondents who affirmed the inclusion of each outcome area.6 While there is still a need to map individual programs of study to these common goals, we do now have greater clarity about the broad goals from which to begin this mapping exercise.

There has been surprisingly little change in the specific outcomes most commonly adopted over the past six years. Of note, however, are a few areas of learning that more institutions seem to be prioritizing for all their students. Today, for instance, 75 percent of institutions seek to advance the research skills of all students, up from 65 percent in 2008–9. In this regard, higher education institutions are fully in sync with employers and with shifts in the economy. A 2013 report on how employers view a variety of educational goals and practices notes that “large majorities believe that colleges that set expectations for students to achieve [particular] learning outcomes will do the most to prepare them for success.” The top-rated goal or practice of the ten evaluated was “expecting students to develop the skills to research questions in their field and develop evidence-based analysis,” which 83 percent of respondents believe would help students succeed in the workplace.7

To Enlarge Table Click Here


Building students’ capacity to do research and generate “new” knowledge and insights about significant problems is essential because of broad economic trends and, especially, the influence of technology on human work. As economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane have documented, human work is increasingly shifting to two kinds of tasks, namely, “solving problems for which standard operating procedures do not currently exist, and working with new information—acquiring it, making sense of it, communicating it to others” (emphasis mine).8 Teaching students to do research projects related to complex problems helps them hone this capacity to “work with new information.” Levy and Murnane note further that the fastest-growing jobs “emphasize communication because their task is to exchange not just information but a particular understanding of information.”9 This broad economic trend has profound implications for how colleges, community colleges, and universities prepare students to succeed in a technology-rich, knowledge-based economy.

There has unquestionably been progress in clarifying the goals for student learning, at least at a very general level. In addition to the use of those goals to drive greater intentionality in program design, however, progress is needed in two other areas. First, students need not only to understand the learning goals set by the institution, but also how and where the curriculum helps them develop the expected outcomes. While many institutions offer an orientation to liberal education for all or some students, communicating these common learning goals and setting expectations, most educational leaders do not believe that their own students actually understand the learning goals the institution has set for them. Indeed, the 2015 member survey found that just 8 percent of academic leaders believe that all or most of their students understand the institution-wide learning goals, which represents virtually no change from 2008–9. To put this in context, another recent AAC&U survey, this one of current college students, suggests that students actually do have a pretty clear sense of the learning outcomes that are most important for success in today’s workplace; however, focus groups held in connection with that survey suggested that students are not receiving clear enough information from faculty about exactly how those outcomes are aligned with specific curricular requirements.10

Second, student progress needs to be tracked in ways that shed light on whether and how curricular pathways lead to the achievement of the common learning goals for all students. While it is encouraging that many institutions are now tracking their students’ achievement of common learning outcomes, few are disaggregating these data by student characteristics such as race/ethnicity, income level, and parental education level. Gathering this kind of disaggregated data will be essential in meeting important equity goals in higher education.

Curricular design

There is now greater clarity about the goals for undergraduate learning, but do we know how to design programs that help more students achieve them? The answer is yes. Today, we know more than ever before about specific

educational practices that improve student outcomes—helping more students graduate and raising their levels of proficiency in key learning areas.11 The 2015 survey of AAC&U members confirms that many institutions are, indeed, working to implement evidence-based practices, and they are especially focused on requiring interventions that support students’ successful transition to college and through the first year.

Nearly two-thirds of AAC&U member institutions now require first-year experiences that support the transition to college, and slightly more than half require first-year academic seminars. Many others offer such proven practices as undergraduate research (87 percent), internships (92 percent), and service learning (79 percent), but very few of them require all students to participate in these practices. Moreover, while nearly four in five institutions are keeping track of participation in high-impact educational practices, only 31 percent are disaggregating the data to discover which students from which groups are participating.

Bringing high-impact practices to scale remains a challenge, as institutions struggle to shift resources away from “low-impact practices” and toward these more engaged and proven forms of learning. However, strategies for embedding high-impact practices within the required curriculum also are emerging across higher education. At nearly three in four institutions, integrative and applied learning projects—the kinds of projects that are often embedded in capstone courses or experiences—are now required for all or at least some students. These institutions as well are fully in synch with employers, large majorities of whom agree that requiring students to complete significant applied-learning projects would improve the general quality of their learning and their preparation for careers. Nearly three in four employers believe this required practice would improve graduates’ preparation for work either “a lot” or “a fair amount.”12

General education and major programs

The 2015 AAC&U member survey found that colleges and universities continue to redesign their approaches to general education, ensuring that this vital part of the curriculum remains both effective in advancing key learning goals and well aligned with twenty-first-century realities. At many institutions, for example, a greater emphasis is being placed on “integration of knowledge, skills, and application” (67 percent) and “applied learning experiences” (61 percent). A slight majority of institutions are emphasizing “cross-cutting skill development” (51 percent). Far fewer are focusing their general education programs solely on the acquisition of broad knowledge. As the pace of knowledge creation continues to accelerate, educational leaders recognize that students need much more from their general education programs than “exposure” to broad knowledge areas. The “name of the game,” according to economists, is building the capacity to work with new knowledge and to put knowledge to use in the world in innovative and responsible ways.13 This economic imperative will have profound implications for the design of general education programs, if those programs are to continue to serve students and society well.

AAC&U member institutions are addressing this challenge incrementally, rather than by making radical changes. As in 2008–9, the vast majority (76 percent) still rely on some form of the “distribution” model, with students selecting courses from broad lists in different knowledge or skill areas. However, 68 percent now employ a “hybrid” model that includes at least some choice for students, while also incorporating more “integrative” or common features such as thematic required courses, structured skill-development courses, learning communities, and integrative capstone courses. At only 8 percent of institutions is the general education program based on a pure distribution model.

Today’s students tend to focus on their own undergraduate fields of study, rather than on the broad skills they acquire and develop across the academic experience as a whole. In fact, few students really seem to grasp what their prospective employers prioritize in this area: more than 90 percent of employers agree that a graduate’s “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”14 This disconnect requires even greater intentionality and integration on the part of higher education institutions. The good news is that there has been significant progress on the integration of general education programs with major requirements. In 2015, 58 percent of academic leaders reported that their general education and major programs are either “fairly well integrated” or “very well integrated,” whereas only 48 percent had reported that in 2008–9.

As students across the country demonstrate and engage in heated protests about institutional action or inaction related to race, equity, and meaningful inclusion, it is important to note that higher education institutions of all sorts continue to need both cocurricular and curricular reforms to meet goals related to diversity and inclusion. Faculty members have, of course, been transforming curricular pathways for at least fifty years to teach far more multicultural content and to ensure that all students learn about issues of diversity and justice. This work has had a profound impact on major programs and general education requirements. Yet, the 2015 member survey reveals that the momentum may be slowing in this particular area of undergraduate education reform. In 2008–9, about 56 percent of chief academic officers reported that their general education programs included diversity courses. In 2015, that number had increased, but only to 60 percent. Those reporting that their programs include global courses jumped from 60 percent in 2008–9 to 70 percent in 2015. Moreover, about 73 percent of institutions include “knowledge of diversity in the United States” as a common learning outcome for all students, no change from 2008–9.

It is clear, then, that much curricular reform is underway—notably including efforts to ensure that more students can integrate and apply what they are learning to complex problem-solving and research-intensive challenges. But we must accelerate the pace of these reforms, especially if we are to advance inclusive excellence and ensure that all students—not just the most privileged—gain the benefits of this more integrative, problem-based learning approach.

Assessment for improvement and accountability

Even as institutions redesign their curricular pathways to make them clearer, more coherent, and more focused on developing the skills of integration and application, many are also developing new approaches to the assessment of student learning. However, although many institutions now gather assessment data, too few of them use the data to improve the quality of their programs.15 Moreover, educators at many institutions are coming to realize that earlier approaches to assessment, especially those that rely on standardized forms of measurement and multiple-choice/single-right-answer tests, are inadequate drivers of institutional change and improvement. Faculty members need not only to have confidence in the assessment methods being used, but also to be able to use the data they yield in order to improve assignments and curricular designs.

The 2015 member survey provides evidence that significant reform is underway in these areas. Today, learning outcomes are being assessed in at least some departments at 87 percent of AAC&U member institutions, up from 72 percent in 2008–9. Learning outcomes in general education are being assessed at 67 percent of AAC&U member institutions, up from 52 percent in 2008–9. For those institutions where general education outcomes are being assessed, the use of rubrics to evaluate samples of student work is by far the most common method of assessment. Of those institutions, 91 percent use rubrics, about one-third use standardized national tests of general knowledge, and about 38 percent use standardized tests of general skills such as critical thinking. Anecdotally, educators and practitioners at AAC&U member institutions report that a rubric-based approach to assessment—an approach that focuses on the work students produce as they progress through the required curriculum—is preferable, in part, because it provides data that faculty can use to make improvements.

Advancing equity

In sum, the 2015 survey of AAC&U members reveals notable progress in clarifying outcomes, strengthening the coherence of the curriculum, implementing evidence-based learning practices, and assessing student learning. The task now is to accelerate the progress in all these areas, and to do so in ways that help close persistent equity gaps. Some commentators suggest that only disruption from without will truly move the needle in higher education. However, a broader view of the higher education landscape suggests that focused and committed academic leaders could accelerate change by bringing together various streams of reform.

For example, several leading institutions have shown that data—intentionally and intelligently collected—can be used to address serious inequities related to students’ pathways to graduation.16 By tracking students’ progress through the curriculum—with particular attention to points at which some students are blocked or diverted from successful paths—it is possible to close gaps in completion rates for students from different backgrounds and with different entering characteristics. The exact same strategy could be deployed with respect to learning outcomes. This would require that data be collected and disaggregated and that faculty members and other educators be supported and assisted as they interpret the data and use them to chart a way forward.

The 2015 member survey found that most institutions are tracking all the right things—retention and graduation rates, but also participation in evidence-based learning activities, actual achievement of learning outcomes, and rates at which students reach key curricular milestones. Too few, however, are disaggregating these data (see fig. 1). Many institutions are deploying strategies to close achievement gaps and increase student achievement of learning outcomes, but they are not specifically targeting these strategies to support students who are most likely to face challenges. For instance, while 57 percent of institutions have goals related to closing gaps in retention or on-time completion among students from different racial/ethnic groups, far fewer institutions have goals related to closing similar gaps in student achievement of learning outcomes (31 percent) or participation in high-impact practices (28 percent).

To Enlarge Figure Click Here


All campuses can accelerate reform by collecting better data and using them to drive the improvement of academic programs. However, investment of time and resources in effective teaching strategies and greater faculty-student interaction—both key to advancing students’ achievement of higher-order skills—may ultimately prove to be the most powerful accelerant of all. Faculty must be at the center of any reform effort, and they need time and support to improve curricular designs and teaching approaches. To that end, 42 percent of chief academic officers report already having in place programs designed to build faculty, instructor, and staff capacity to use culturally competent teaching strategies. Another 35 percent do not yet have such programs, but are planning to develop them. And 67 percent report either having or developing goals to work with faculty in order to build new opportunities for high-impact learning for first-generation and low-income students as well as for students of color.

It is clear from the latest survey of AAC&U member institutions that educators have not thrown up their hands in the face of daunting expectations for higher education and a very challenging policy environment. By bringing together the many areas of work discussed above in more intentional and coordinated ways, collaborative teams of educators and leaders could deploy data and target resources to promote student success more effectively. Students who come to our colleges, community colleges, and universities place their hopes and dreams in our hands. We must not let them down, as their futures—and our shared futures —are at stake.


1. Kevin Carey, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015), 36.

2. See Hart Research Associates, Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn (Washington, DC: AAC&U, 2010); Hart Research Associates, It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Washington, DC: AAC&U, 2013).

3. See “Multi-State Collaboration Produces Valuable New Evidence About Writing, Critical Thinking, and Quantitative Literacy Skills of Undergraduate Students Using Rubric-Based Assessment of Students’ Authentic Work,” AAC&U and State Higher Education Executive Officers, September 24, 2015,

4. See Hart Research Associates, Bringing Equity and Quality Learning Together: Institutional Priorities for Tracking and Advancing Underserved Students’ Success; Key Findings from a Survey and In-Depth Interviews among Administrators at AAC&U Member Institutions (Washington, DC: AAC&U, 2015); Hart Research Associates, Trends in Learning Outcomes Assessment: Key Findings from a Survey among Administrators at AAC&U Member Institutions and Recent Trends in General Education Design, Learning Outcomes, and Teaching Approaches: Key Findings from a Survey among Administrators at AAC&U Member Institutions (Washington, DC: AAC&U, 2016).

5. Hart Research Associates, Learning and Assessment: Trends in Undergraduate Education—A Survey Among Members of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (Washington, DC: 2009).

6. The 2015 survey found that 85 percent of AAC&U members have a set of learning outcomes that is common for all undergraduates throughout the institution, up from 78 percent in 2008–9. For each of four outcome categories, table 1 compares the percentage of these institutions whose common set of student learning outcomes includes a specific goal or outcome in the knowledge or skill area indicated. The four categories correspond to the listing of LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes, which was developed as part of AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative (see

7. Hart Research Associates, It Takes More than a Major, 10.

8. Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work (Washington, DC: Third Way, 2013), 5–6.

9. Ibid., 18.

10. See Hart Research Associates, Optimistic About the Future, But How Well Prepared? College Students’ Views on College Learning and Career Success (Washington, DC: AAC&U, 2015).

11. See, for example, George D. Kuh and Ken O’Donnell, Ensuring Quality and Taking High-Impact Practices to Scale (Washington, DC: AAC&U, 2013); Thomas R. Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

12. See Hart Research Associates, Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success (Washington, DC: AAC&U, 2015).

13. See, for example, Levy and Murnane, Dancing with Robots; Enrico Moretti, The New Geography of Jobs (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).

14. See Hart Research Associates, It Takes More than a Major, 1.

15. See George D. Kuh, Natasha Jankowski, Stanley O. Ikenberry, and Jillian Kinzie, Knowing What Students Can Know and Can Do: The Current State of Learning Outcomes Assessment in U.S. Colleges and Universities (Champaign, IL: National Institution on Learning Outcomes Assessment, 2013).

16. For examples, see David Kirp, “What Can Stop Kids from Dropping Out,” New York Times, May 1, 2016,; Raynard Kington, Eliminating “have” and “have not” categories on the Iowa prairie and beyond, Hechinger Report, May 3, 2016,

Debra Humphreys is senior vice president for academic planning and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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