Another Commission Will Take On the Future of Higher Education

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.