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CNN Films explores the Ivory Tower

We are in the midst of an important national conversation about the value of a university education. CNN Films has explored the costs and benefits of a college degree in a provocative documentary called “Ivory Tower.” The film takes a broad look at issues many universities are facing, including poor graduation rates, the growing student debt load and the challenges and obstacles — both financial and, in many cases, cultural — faced by low-income and first-generation students. And while I applaud the exploration of these issues and encourage you to watch it, I also offer what can be lost in the discussion: that some public universities are pioneering solutions in passionate, world-class ways. The University of Washington is leading the pack.

The role of public higher education as an engine of social mobility and societal advancement is at the core of what the UW stands for as one of the world’s great public universities. A central tenet of our mission is to do all we can to ensure that any student who has worked hard and earned the academic credentials to be admitted to the UW can be here, regardless of economic circumstances. We are proud of our record as a gateway to boundless opportunity for all students. As a society, we must ensure this gateway continues to be open.

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that in 2013 Americans with a four-year degree earned on average 98 percent more per hour than those without a college degree. Similarly, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the lifetime earnings of college graduates are nearly $1 million more than those with a high school diploma. For individuals, a university degree can be the difference between poverty and prosperity.

College graduates are also most likely to embrace — as part of their life’s endeavors — a commitment to making the world a better place. They are 43 percent more likely to volunteer in their communities, according to Tufts University’s, whose data also suggest that more than two-thirds of young people with bachelor’s degrees engage with our political process: They vote. For American society, indeed for the world, these virtues are the requirements of our shared progress. They include the understanding that prosperous and vibrant communities, healthy families, active citizenship — indeed democracy itself — often require a commitment to “we” ahead of “me.”

At the UW, we certainly have not escaped the challenges of the past decade. The great recession accelerated a decades-long shift in the business model for public higher education, reducing state support and placing the lion’s share of costs squarely on students and their parents. But as is our way at the UW, we have faced these issues head-on and with proven success.

For more than 150 years, we have been providing students from all walks of life one of the finest educations in the world. At the same time, we’ve developed programs to foster the economic diversity of our campus populations for generations to come. A third of UW undergraduates receive support through the Husky Promise, a program that guarantees that full tuition and standard fees will be covered by grant or scholarship support for eligible Washington state students. Thirty percent of our private endowment funds scholarships. We’ve built academic support programs to help all students be successful, including the 30 percent who are the first in their families to attend college. Our graduation rates are high, with more than 80 percent of students graduating within a six-year period.

We have proven and continue to prove that a public university can be both racehorse and workhorse: providing a world-class education while still being accessible to all.

The mission of higher education will continue to be debated, in political venues, in classrooms, in community centers, in films. There are important issues for all of us to address. But at the UW, we remain resolutely optimistic. Every day, thousands of young people pursue their dreams here — some would say the American dream — and accomplish extraordinary things. We are committed to remaining their gateway and guide — for the good of all of us.

Michael K Young signature
Michael K. Young

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