The way ahead for higher ed The way ahead for higher ed The way ahead for higher ed

In a challenging time for higher education, the UW and other institutions try to restore public trust.

By Hannelore Sudermann | Illustration by Joe Anderson | March 2023

Higher education is in trouble. Colleges and universities across the country are facing a worrisome decline in public confidence. And that drop in trust can affect funding, community interactions and college enrollment.

A recent survey by New America, a left-leaning think tank, found that only about half of Americans believe colleges and universities are leading the country in a positive direction. Those who feel positively about the impact of the institutions dropped from 69% in 2020 to 55% in 2022. The survey also showed a strong partisan divide. Nearly three-quarters of the Democratic respondents said they believed colleges and universities have a positive effect, just 37% of the Republicans did. With both parties, though, the decline is significant.

According to the Gallup Organization, Americans are in a time of record low confidence across all institutions including all three branches of federal government, the media, the police, organized religion and the medical system. But over the decades, higher education has fared better than most.

Now news about topics like the high price of tuition, high student debt and legacy admissions at private schools are eroding public confidence. So have scandals like “Operation Varsity Blues,” a college admissions bribery scheme. And just last fall, college rankings came into question when the U.S. News & World Report was criticized for using faulty data and accused of prizing wealthier, private colleges and not performing objective evaluations. Now many schools, including the UW School of Law and the UW School of Medicine, have stopped participating in the magazine’s rankings program.

Education leaders around the country are working together to figure out what to do.

Over the years, the University of Washington has found ways to show how it benefits individual lives, communities and society as a whole while deepening its connections with its alumni and the communities of Washington.

In February, at a Council for Advancement and Support of Education conference in Bellevue, UW President Ana Mari Cauce took the stage to discuss the issue. She was joined by Teresa Hutson, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for the Technology and Corporate Responsibility Group, and Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education and a former U.S. undersecretary of education.

Mitchell said he was already talking about the troubling trend of declining public trust five years ago. Today, the situation is worse. “The meter is going the wrong way,” he told the audience of higher education workers. “The American public has lost a lot of confidence over time.” In addition to a partisan split, focus groups are showing that political independents, a growing category, are also trending down, he added.

All colleges and universities need to do more to communicate their value, said UW President Ana Mari Cauce.

He pointed to a robust narrative feeding the unpopularity. People are saying that you don’t need to go to college anymore, and if you do, it will not pay off, he said. The narrative also suggests that college won’t help you do better at your job, and the kicker: “You’ll be brainwashed,” he said. “In a lot of ways, the problem with that narrative isn’t that it’s false. In each of those bits of the narrative, there’s a nugget of truth.”

Five years ago, the UW joined forces with Washington State University in a public campaign to reach families about the possibility and affordability of college. They called it “Yes, It’s Possible.” “The goal was to make it clear that you can attend college and you can graduate without a lot of debt,” said Cauce. The program’s site states that “no student should have their dreams denied because of their background and financial circumstances” and directs potential students and families to explore financial aid and grant opportunities at the state’s public colleges and universities and community and technical colleges.

Another of the UW’s pathways to raise public awareness and boost support for education came about in 2019, when UW and other Washington state colleges and universities worked alongside the business community to increase state support for scholarships. The resulting Washington College Grant has been the state’s most significant investment in higher education in a decade.

The businesses, which included Microsoft and Amazon, asked the state to tax them for the purposes of developing a larger workforce and a stronger community in which to operate. Businesses need predictability, said Hutson of Microsoft. There is predictability in knowing this state is investing in the people who live here, who go to college here, she added.

But the secret ingredient in the legislative recipe was the alumni voice. More than 2,000 people, many of them Huskies, wrote to their legislators in favor of the new tax. Olympia heard from constituents in 48 of the state’s 49 legislative districts.

The Workforce Education Investment Act created the Washington College Grant to increase state grants for low- and middle-income families. Now members of families making $64,500 or less can get full tuition at any eligible in-state public college or university or comparable support at approved private college or technical training programs. In the last academic year, the grant has paid some or all of the tuition for more than 94,000 students—more than 14,000 of them at the UW. “We are so lucky in this state,” said Cauce. “We are one of the most affordable states in the country for students who want to go to private or public colleges and universities.”

Now all colleges and universities need to do more to communicate their value, said Cauce. “Kids start deciding that they’re not going to make it to college when they are in middle school.” Those in higher education need to reach them and their families with stories about the student experience and about the good work the schools are doing in their communities.

The UW and other schools are teaming up with institutions, businesses and key stakeholders through Discover the Next, an initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a joint project of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. “We take for granted that higher education in this form will always be around,” said Cauce. “If we don’t change, we could disappear.”