A Tough Year for Higher Education in America


Higher education trends in 2023 include one singularity, several pairs of challenges, and three types of government involvement.

In the context of machine learning, “singularity” refers to that point at which machines become more intelligent than humans. Are we there yet?

ChatGPT was unveiled for the public in late 2022. When classes resumed in 2023, some faculty feared students would use it to cheat. Others saw it as a boon for offloading routine work and stimulating human creativity. It soon became clear that “counter-technology” would not stop students from experimenting with generative artificial intelligence tools. Faculty need to adapt. I asked ChatGPT to help me with this story. It replied: “I’m sorry, but I don’t have real-time information as my training only includes data up to January 2022. Therefore, I cannot provide the top 10 stories in higher education for 2023.” We’re not quite there yet.

The following pairs highlight key challenges and opportunities.

Student Activism/Apathy. Student engagement on campus has shifted with the arrival of members of Gen Z (the cohort born between about 1996 and 2010). The pandemic and BlackLivesMatter movement motivated GenZ to action. They vote – even in off-year elections. They are digital natives who use their networking skills to organize protests and to serve their communities. They are vocal in support of cherished causes such as climate change and vocal in shouting down speakers with whom they disagree.

As GenZ students have “returned” to campus after the COVID pandemic, faculty report that classrooms are often sparsely populated. An increasing number of “ghost” students cut class, miss assignments, and fail to communicate about being MIA. As Kerry O’Grady of Georgetown University notes: “Learner expectations, in general, need to be reset. Students should understand that deciding to pursue an education isn’t a transaction—it’s a transfer of learning.” And “being there” is part of the learning process – at least for now.

On-campus Labor/After-campus Labor. Nationally, about 35,700 student workers and 4,000 faculty members gained union representation in 2023. About one third of the higher education strikes that have occurred in the past decade happened in the past year. In November, student employees at Washington State University authorized a strike. Faculty have no legally protected right to strike in Washington. However, a 2023 report from University of Washington’s American Association of University Professors chapter reports that faculty are concerned about their rights as workers.

Students are also concerned about labor. They want their college education to translate into jobs that pay well and have generous benefits. Matthew T. Hora, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, suggests that “higher education is in the midst of a mission shift that positions career readiness as a strategic, campuswide priority.” Still, almost half of college graduates, especially those in the liberal arts, feel under-qualified for entry-level jobs.

Institutional Finances/Student Finances. Funding for state-supported colleges and universities comes from four sources: state appropriations, tuition, federal funds, and “other sources” such as gifts, grants, endowments, and auxiliary services. After years of decline in state funding, a recent study reported a 6.6% overall increase in state appropriations in 2023. Washington state spending increased by 9.8%. But only 40% of the cost of operating public universities comes from government funding. As funding has become more volatile, colleges and universities are working to develop nimble budget models. They have also become reliant on big donors who expect influence in exchange for their support.

As money received from government sources has gone down, tuition has gone up. Nationally, average annual tuition at a four-year public institution is about $14,300. Washington public institutions range from a low of about $6,900 for Eastern Washington University to about $11,400 for the University of Washington. The full cost of attendance (including books, room, board, etc.) averages about $30,000 nationally. A recent report from Sallie Mae found that, on average, 50% of that bill is paid through family income and savings, 29% from scholarships and grants, 19% from borrowing (see below for more on debt), and 2% from relatives and friends.

In the past year, higher education institutions have seen shifts in the role of several levels of government.

Federal Government: Student Loans. The federal government contributes to higher education through programs such as TRIO, which serves students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and research grants through agencies like the National Science Foundation. It also offered COVID-relief money. Federal money also comes to institutions through student-based financial aid. As reported earlier, 43.6 million borrowers collectively owe federal student-loan debt of $1.77 trillion. Payment of that debt was suspended in 2020 but started again this year. The Biden administration announced plans to forgive large portions of student debt. But the US Congress and the Supreme Court rejected many of those plans.

Race-conscious admissions. On June 19, 2023 the Supreme Court held that admissions programs “which account for race at various stages in the process, violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S.” Will colleges and universities continue their efforts to enhance diversity? Many institutions turned away from race-explicit admission policies years ago. The University of Tennessee, where I worked for more than two decades, was concerned about anti-affirmative-action sentiment at both the state and national level. The flagship institution chose to address diversity by enhancing recruiting efforts at schools that traditionally sent few students to college. Those schools have diverse student populations. Other colleges and universities are also acting creatively to recruit diverse student populations.

Legislative “Oversight” Why should the House Education and Workforce Committee grill private university presidents (who receive less than 10% of their funding from government sources) about the parameters of free speech? Perhaps state legislatures could argue for an activist role because they provide more funding for public higher education. But is withholding employee pay raises the best way to resolve disagreements between legislatures and universities? Legislative reforms in Florida have led to the departure of faculty and staff. For now, Washington legislators seem focused primarily on the Washington College Grant, the Seattle Opportunity Grant, and a simplified federal aid application process. But as culture wars heat up, the climate of higher education in the Pacific Northwest could change.

In short, technology, generational change, pandemic recovery, money, and meddling underlie trends in higher education this year. Many of these are long-running stories, but each had important chapters this year.

Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan, author of "Digital Immigrants and Media Integration," is a writer, academician, and organizational leader. She has been a high school teacher, book editor, non-profit leader, journalist, technology executive, university professor, academic administrator, and higher education consultant.


  1. “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
    Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

    ― T.S. Eliot, The Rock (1934)

    Recommendation: more emphasis on a rounded liberal arts curriculum.


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