Announcing a new book on "What Matters Most" in higher education

Five higher ed leaders with ties to Elon University have collaborated to write about best practices in colleges and universities.

A new book by five higher education leaders focuses on the key elements of a successful undergraduate experience. The book is meant to serve as a best-practices guide for faculty, staff, administrators and governing boards as they shape their institutions and make decisions about programs and operations.

“The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most” (Website: is based on the authors’ decades of administrative experience and new research about the characteristics of an excellent collegiate education. The authors are:

  • Peter Felten, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning, professor of history and assistant provost for teaching and learning at Elon University
  • John N. Gardner, president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education and senior fellow and distinguished professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina
  • Charles C. Schroeder, past president of ACPA – College Student Educators International and former vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Missouri.
  • Leo M. Lambert, currently in his 18th year as president of Elon University
  • Betsy O. Barefoot, co-founder and senior scholar of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education and co-editor of New Directions for Higher Education

The authors analyze six core themes that matter most at effective colleges and universities:

  • Student learning
  • Close relationships
  • Expectations for high performance
  • Alignment of resources and mission
  • A culture of continuous improvement
  • Purposeful leadership

Authors of "The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most" include (l-r): Peter Felten, Charles C. Schroeder, Leo M. Lambert, Betsy O. Barefoot and John N. Gardner.
Focusing on these themes is critical at a time when higher education faces financial challenges, technological disruption and criticism about the quality of academic programs and the preparation of graduates to succeed in today’s world.

“Above all, we believe institutional culture dedicated to excellence in undergraduate education must be relentlessly focused on student learning,” Lambert says. “Excellent colleges and universities organize themselves in such a way that all people on campus—faculty, administrators, board members, support personnel, and students—see themselves as part of a community of learners. As self-evident as it seems to say that learning matters, institutional cultures can easily drift into more peripheral territories.”

The authors studied several different types of institutions for the book, including community colleges, research universities and liberal arts colleges. They posit that most higher education institutions have the assets necessary to thrive. Such schools are staffed by smart and creative people with strong support from students, alumni, parents and trustees. However, some institutions stray from their core missions as they struggle with competing agendas, shrinking resources and other common challenges. Effective institutions are guided by a sustaining, aspirational vision.

The authors aim to provide practical advice with examples of excellent programs that illustrate the importance of the six core themes. Along with analysis, the book includes discussion questions that prompt readers to consider how these principles and practices can connect to their own institutions.

“The Undergraduate Experience” is an optimistic book that calls on leaders to provide the higher education that is essential for society to deal with the profound challenges that lie ahead. “Not only do our students need and deserve high-quality educations, but our world also needs more people with the knowledge, skills, capacities, and commitments to make positive differences in their professions and communities,” write the authors. “Higher education is one of the fundamental levers necessary to create a more sustainable, just, and humane future.”

The book includes a Foreword by Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “The authors are leaders who understand that moving a college or university forward is not about one person but rather about a community and the culture of the institution,” writes Hrabowski. “In fact, what comes through as one reads the illustrations in this book and absorbs their lessons is that the substance of an institution’s culture is particularly critical to what we can achieve.”

Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, says this is a “can-do” book. “The authors both encourage and provide an aspirational vision of systemic, integrative steps any institution can take to achieve its own design for powerful and purposeful college learning,” Schneider says. “Through page after page of inspiring examples, they show us that engaged and public-spirited quality learning is an achievable goal at every kind of college, university and community college.”

> Read the book review in Inside Higher Education

“The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most” is published by Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand, and is available on (272 pages, $40 hardcover, $19.99 e-book). It is also available for purchase at the Elon University Barnes & Noble bookstore.