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A photo of a thunderstorm—multiple storm clouds and lightning bolts can be seen against a dark blue/black background.

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The summer of 2023 in America may be remembered for many things: extreme heat, the ongoing proliferation of mass shootings and the start of the 2024 presidential campaign. This was also the summer when a devastating storm hit higher education. Many will point to the Supreme Court case on affirmative action as a contributor, but there were—like all dangerous storms—multiple elements in the atmosphere that came together and shook higher education.

Without a doubt, the ruling by the Supreme Court renouncing four decades of affirmative action was a watershed moment. Reducing access to higher education for groups that have historically been underrepresented will have a major impact and exacerbate inequities rife throughout education from kindergarten to college.

While the ruling was profound, there were other damaging elements at play this summer, including a massive drop in confidence in higher education. According to Gallup, the number of Americans expressing “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of confidence in higher education dropped 21 percentage points over the past eight years, from 57 to 36 percent. Only about a third of the public believes in the value of what colleges and universities offer.

As disastrous as those numbers are for a university leader to see, they are matched by what’s on the horizon. The summer of 2023 was the moment pandemic learning losses began to emerge in the data. Math and reading test scores for teens were the lowest since 1990 for math and since 2004 for reading. According to a July study, it will take the equivalent of half an academic year for students to catch up to pre-pandemic achievement levels.

A decrease in the number of students choosing college is the next storm front. The overall decrease in the number of high school students is one issue, but now we see fewer eligible students choosing to go to college.

Cost is a significant factor. Without equivocation, college should be affordable and accessible for all. We created a scholarship at Hollins University to provide tuition-free education for local students. But there is no better investment than a college education. Not only will you have significantly more earnings, but you will also be more likely to vote, be happier and be more civically engaged. Yet we lament the cost of education even though the price of a new car far exceeds the average student loan debt; a car declines in value while education is invaluable.

Finally—and these issues warrant much more than this brief mention—artificial intelligence, the ongoing mental health crisis, book banning and the erasure of teaching the complexities of history all contributed to this catastrophic summer storm.

Historically, there have been other seismic moments in higher education. The creation of the GI Bill prompted the democratization of education in the United States. The necessary fight for desegregation during the 20th century challenged institutions. The shift to coeducation in the ’60s and ’70s changed the face of higher education.

There is a major difference between those movements and today’s. Prior shifts created and expanded opportunities for people. They were moments when our nation and higher education worked together to nurture and support an educated citizenry. They were critical to our nation becoming a global superpower.

Conversely, the summer of 2023 was about removing opportunities and narrowing access. Fewer students, fewer opportunities and declining confidence are the unifying forces in this destructive storm.

If not compelled by the idea of an educated citizenry and thriving democracy, ask yourself how the U.S. will compete globally. UNESCO reported that within the last 20 years, the largest postsecondary education expansion largely took place in Asia, where the number of university students grew by more than 200 percent.

You can help mitigate the storm damage here at home. Encourage a young person to ask good questions about higher education and how it can transform lives. Recognize what higher education means for our global standing and what happens if we limit access to education. Most importantly, question stories about colleges and universities; ask if what you are reading jibes with your own experience of the value of education and how it enriches your communities.

It is my job to focus on higher education storms. However, I would be remiss not to sound the alarm that the decline of higher education is a dire warning to us all about storm losses to come: losses to our democracy, losses to our world standing, losses to our communities and, most sadly, losses to our humanity.

Mary Dana Hinton is president of Hollins University.

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