For Immediate Release

David Tritelli
Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs
202-884-0812 (office)

AAC&U Issues The LEAP Challenge and Launches Next Generation of Work to Extend the Advantages of an Empowering Liberal Education to All Students

At Centennial Meeting, AAC&U challenges higher education to require & prepare every college student to pursue their own "Signature Work"—& thereby demonstrate achievement of learning outcomes essential for a changing economy & for engaged citizenship

Jan 22, 2015

Washington, DC—The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) opened its Centennial Annual Meeting looking to the future. 

Marking its 100th year of leadership for liberal education and ten years of educational reform and advocacy through its groundbreaking national initiative, Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), AAC&U today launched the next phase of LEAP with a bold national challenge to higher education to prepare all college students, including those at both two- and four-year institutions, to produce “Signature Work”—a project related to a problem important to the student and to society.  In this “Signature Work” conducted across at least one semester, a student might do research, a practicum, a creative project, a community-based project, or a collaborative project.  Whatever the form, Signature Work will always involve inquiry, analysis, reflection, and visible results. 

“It is time to break free of an outdated mindset that equates course completion with college success,” AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider told the 2,000 educational leaders who gathered for AAC&U’s Centennial Annual Meeting.  “The challenge of our time is to ensure that all college students are well-prepared to tackle unscripted problems with the broad knowledge and cross-cutting skills that will help them flourish in today’s world.  We need to redesign our curricular pathways so that all students—at two and four-year colleges alike—experience multiple, high-impact assignments and projects that prepare them to integrate and apply their learning to complex questions and problems.   Building from these preparatory experiences, all students should complete a significant project before they graduate. Students’ “Signature Work” should become the new marker of quality in higher education.”

AAC&U’s LEAP Challenge is all about preparing students to integrate and apply their learning to complex questions.  It is informed by numerous studies which show that the jobs of the future will require graduates to deal with new problems and new information.  It also is informed by the research showing that “high-impact practices” such as research, internships, service learning, and collaborative projects are correlated with higher levels of college persistence/completion and with higher levels of learning on 21st-century skills. 

In issuing the challenge, AAC&U also pointed to findings from a new survey of employers commissioned by AAC&U and conducted by Hart Research Associates.  Released this week, the survey results show that employers strongly endorse students’ completion of a significant project as excellent preparation for job success and an advantage when graduates are competing for jobs.   Eighty-seven percent of employers surveyed report that they would be more likely to consider hiring a candidate if she or he had completed an advanced, comprehensive senior project. 

“Today’s graduates will be called upon to solve the problems and pursue the opportunities of a dynamic economy and a complex, diverse democracy,” said Kenneth P. Ruscio, chair of the AAC&U Board of Directors and President of Washington and Lee University.  “By meeting The LEAP Challenge, we can ensure that liberal education prepares all college students for what lies ahead, whatever their backgrounds, educational goals, and intended careers.”

According to the 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index, college graduates are nearly twice as likely to be engaged at work if they had worked on a project in college that took a semester or more to complete.   Only 32 percent of 30,000 college graduates surveyed reported having worked on this kind of a significant project while in college.   

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) reports that about 30 percent of college seniors say they have completed some kind of culminating project and that another 30 percent intend to do one.  The Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CSSE) reports that about one-quarter of community college students report participating in community-based projects as part of their regular coursework.

As it issues its LEAP Challenge, AAC&U also premiered today a Centennial Video featuring the power of an engaged, public-spirited liberal education to transform students’ lives and address the “big questions.”  Featuring the voices of educators, business leaders, and students at AAC&U member institutions, the video shines a spotlight on a 21st-century liberal education and how “signature work” can help all students develop the capacities they need for future success and leadership.  Go to to view AAC&U’s Centennial Video.

“The U.S. cannot afford a two-tiered educational system in which some students are doing really challenging and horizon-expanding work and others are simply piecing together disconnected courses until they have enough credits for a credential or degree, “ said George D. Kuh, Chancellor’s Professor of Higher Education Emeritus at Indiana University Bloomington and member of the LEAP National Leadership Council.   “The point of a liberating education is to prepare students to deal effectively with complexity, diversity, and dynamic change.  Given economic and global trends and challenges, postsecondary institutions must equip students to analyze and use evidence to tackle complex questions in an ethical manner to reach their own positions on those questions.”

With more than 13 million dollars of  support from many foundations and from donors to AAC&U’s special Centennial funds,  AAC&U also described today the multiple projects through which it will work with and mobilize the higher education community to meet The LEAP Challenge.

AAC&U initiatives related to The LEAP Challenge include:

  • The LEAP States Initiative
  • The Roadmap Projects
  • General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs)
  • Teaching to Increase Diversity and Equity in STEM (TIDES)
  • Scientific Thinking and Integrative Reasoning Skills (STIRS)
  • Signature Work
  • Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE)

AAC&U also will promote The LEAP Challenge through its LEAP Campus Action Network and Presidents’ Trust—networks of educational leaders at colleges, universities, community colleges who have made the advancement of liberal education and inclusive excellence a top priority.

“On many college campuses at least some students do pursue significant research and applied projects through which they develop important cross-cutting skills essential for future success,” said Charlene Dukes, president of Prince George’s Community College and a member of the AAC&U Board of Directors.  “We know from educational research that these kinds of engaged and applied learning opportunities have a strikingly positive impact of student learning.  Today, AAC&U is challenging higher education to build on what we know to expand our commitment to engaged liberal education for every college students and for our shared future.  We are proud to be launching AAC&U’s next century of leadership with this challenge.” 

To learn more about The LEAP Challenge and how to get involved, see

For more information about AAC&U's survey of employers, see

About AAC&U

AAC&U is the leading national association concerned with the quality, vitality, and public standing of undergraduate liberal education. Its members are committed to extending the advantages of a liberal education to all students, regardless of academic specialization or intended career. Founded in 1915, AAC&U now comprises more than 1,300 member institutions—including accredited public and private colleges, community colleges, research universities, and comprehensive universities of every type and size.

AAC&U functions as a catalyst and facilitator, forging links among presidents, administrators, and faculty members who are engaged in institutional and curricular planning. Its mission is to reinforce the collective commitment to liberal education and inclusive excellence at both the national and local levels, and to help individual institutions keep the quality of student learning at the core of their work as they evolve to meet new economic and social challenges.