Educational Opportunity: The Interview at Tarrytown

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

On April 13, 2015, I provided the keynote for the Tri-State Consortium of Opportunity Programs in Higher Education at their Biennial Conference. GIven the subject matter, I thought this might be of interest for readers and listeners. The interview is also available on Youtube here


Q: There is a lot of research coming out, and when it comes to counselors who are really in the front lines of student impact, they might not have the ability to tap into that data or at least use that for implementation sake. What would be some of your suggestions for practitioners and those who are in the in the front lines to do to leverage that information to better serve students.

SWAIL: I think one of the biggest challenges for students is that they don’t know enough about the careers available or their information isn’t accurate on earnings or what it takes. I view so many examples of talking to kids in 8th or 10th grade and they want to be a nurse but they think it’s seven years to go to nursing school, so they don’t go into nursing. The information is poor and I think counselors have to find ways to get better information and better teaching aids to students in order to drill into them what careers are so that they can find out who they are and what their aptitudes are and then start researching the education. I just think that’s probably one of the primary challenges because if you don’t go into something that you like, guess what? You might not finish and then you’re back at the starting point. So, I think the college counseling piece critically important to try and get a student, especially middle school and high school, tuned in to the possibilities of postsecondary education.

Q: So, it sounds like you know counselors need to be more than just advisors but also educators?

SWAIL: Oh, absolutely. I think that they (counselors) are a prominent piece of the puzzle for students, especially the populations that we’re often talking about—first-generation, low-income, students of color—they need more support because they don’t necessarily come from a community or a family that has that expertise. So, I think it’s real important to kind of open the shutters on what they can do because really you can do still, in America, do almost anything you want but you have to be tuned in to know the stepping stones to get there.

Q: What are some of the things that you think need to shift in our posture for education as it relates to students in opportunity programs making opportunities happen?

SWAIL: I do make the statement that not everyone should go to college. You have to break that statement apart of what it means and I always couch it very carefully, especially, let’s be real, a white guy with three college degrees who has had great opportunities—created many of them—but there was a foundation there that made my life a little easier in some ways than others, to be sure. I think everyone deserves to have an equal opportunity for high-quality education. I also think people should have the information and knowledge to pick the pathway that works for him or her and that may or may not include college. I think we’ve gotten too much on the BA bandwagon, and I show the income coming from higher degrees, but it’s skewed data to a certain point. I think people have to determine what they will be happy doing and it’s not necessarily that we need more people with bachelor’s degrees—we actually don’t need more people with bachelor’s degrees—we will need more people with health care backgrounds in two year and less, certificates, and in some cases, none at all. Perhaps certain badges or others. I think that is what is going to be important in the future and I think if we expand the way that people can get skillsets I think gives people more options. Still, I think everyone in this country, and arguably all countries, should have that choice to make about their future and then the barriers should be taken out of the way. That is what governments are for and that is what the rest of society is for

Q: I wanted to kind of shift things in terms of the counselors working with students and families and prepping them for that information and expectations to how do we take this information that the Education Policy Institute provides and advocate to the administrative level, because they might not have the context and history that we have in how opportunity programs work and the efficacy of it. How do we advocate at an administrative level?

SWAIL: I guess the bad answer to this is in some ways that we have always done it, sometimes through national organizations, state organizations, and this tri-state consortium, getting pertinent up-to-date information into the hands of the decision-makers so they understand the challenges and the solutions. I did make the point this morning that I would like to see these programs, and others, be part of the systemic solution, and, as you said, not just band aid programs which are helpful. We need to really improve these school systems and, as I’ve heard and said before, it would be wonderful if all of us in this business were out of a job because that means that the schools were doing everything necessary to get students to the next level. That is clearly not the case in many schools and school districts and, until then, these programs are paramount in the lives of many students. For that purpose, we need these programs to work more hand-in-hand with the institutions and schools.

Q: No, we are not going to figure out this in a quick 10-15-minute interview, but what would be a good starting point, what would that look like for systemic change for opportunity programs in terms of finding that solution?

SWAIL: Maybe retooling some of the programs, which is a challenging concept when some of them have been around for 60 years, to suggest retooling when they need to evolve with the time. And I’m not sure they all have. I’m confident that the programs are doing good things—I’m not worried about that. But they have to do “better” things that help students in maybe different ways. If that can happen, then they become even more important to school districts and to colleges and universities. Thus, they have to evolve and perhaps push the system in some ways.

We talked about the counseling a lot and it is mind boggling to me that counseling isn’t one of the number one things that high schools—if not middle schools—do. But in many areas we rely on these programs to provide what the school doesn’t. That doesn’t compute with me why the schools aren’t taking that over, other than funding issues. It is just so important. So, maybe over time that we can push at least the conversation of the importance of it. And, you know what, if schools would take over that and these programs didn’t have to do that anymore, that would be a good thing, because then the programs could focus on the other gaps. So, it is not a negative thing if that disappeared from opportunity programs; it would be a positive because it meant that it is being fulfilled somewhere else and we can use our menu of resources in more appropriate ways.

Q: So let me know I’m hearing you correctly. Create closer relationship with high schools to start the expectation of gathering information earlier so that, when it comes time for college, those resources can be shifted towards maybe the career aspects and educational goals.

SWAIL: I think that’s part of it and I imagine a lot of the directors out there say, ‘well, we can’t get closer than we are.” And that may be true, but I think that part of the job is just trying to ensure that those relationships are as strong as possible and not just with principals and assistant principals and superintendents, but others in the community as well, and the policymakers and decision-makers. I think it is critical to to get everything moving forward.

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The Over-Under on Underemployment

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

I am a product of higher education and my 10 years of postsecondary study have served me well. My college degrees gave me the opportunity to access better jobs and a better lifestyle. The College Plan worked for me, and it continues to help millions of others across the US, Canada, and beyond. What we are learning, however, is that it doesn’t help everyone in the same way. And for some, it doesn’t help at all.

Over the years, I’ve been known to suggest that there exists—dare I say—a “cultish” personality within higher education. People who have completed college have a high perception of the value of their investment because, like me, it has served them well. The cult is perpetuated to a higher level by those who work in higher education. They are the missionaries looking to entice future students into the religion of higher education because it has done so much for them. Thus, they must enlist others into the dogma of how college can change lives. As well, people working in the college world have a certain self-interest in propelling both the truth and the myth that higher education is a panacea for all things. More students produce enhanced job security. Given what is happening at so many small colleges right now with regard to low enrollments, there are a lot of worried faculty and staff around the country.

A higher education can, of course, help remedy difficult circumstances for many people, especially those who are first-generation college students or from low-income backgrounds. An education has the ability to alter seemingly imminent life courses and allow people to break out of their social class through better jobs and higher pay, which in turn increases the health and welfare, living conditions, and future trajectory of their family.

But the gloss of reporting which suggests that everyone benefits equally or better from a higher education is grossly mistaken. The value of a higher education depends on many factors. For instance, we know that the type of institution that a student attends matters greatly. The returns to a two-year certificate or degree are not, on average, as high as those who earn a BA. As well, the perception and selectivity of the institution have a massive impact on future earnings and other outcomes. People who attend Ivy and similar institutions tend to have access to much better jobs with much better pay. A third factor is the amount of debt that a student incurs during college. While students at expensive, selective institutions incur large debt amounts, they also have an enhanced ability to pay these obligations due to higher incomes. Those who incur relatively large debt loads at lower-cost institutions may have more trouble repaying their loans because the returns on investment are not equivalent to their more affluent peers. And finally, there is a large differing impact on those who complete their degree program versus those who do not. Ability to finish means everything in higher education, and those who do not finish their degree program are arguably no better off than had they not started at all. And this become the crunch: simply stating wonderful things about the returns on higher education without a thought to the whole picture does a great disservice to society. We need to be frank about the great things that come from the college experience as well as the not-so-great things, especially since the student and parents are responsible for a larger and larger piece of the price tag.

By the way, I know many people who disagree with me on this issue. I have spoken with legislators who were visibly angry that I would suggest that “some college” could actually have a negative impact on students. My point being that there are those who go to college, incur extreme debt, and fail to complete their degree. In the end, they are worse off than when they started. A lot of debt; not piece of paper to pay for it. Thus, I challenge people who think some college is better than no college at all to take on the debt of those people and walk a few miles in their shoes. It isn’t always better.

This week, Burning Glass Technologies, in partnership with Strada Education Network, released a report on the underemployment of college graduates, and it provides some fodder to the “not for all” discussion. Burning Glass is an analytical company that collects labor market information from millions of workers. In this case, they focused their analysis on what happens to bachelor’s degree recipients after graduation. The findings are illuminating.

Note that this new report does not focus on unemployment. Rather, it focuses on “underemployment,” defined as bachelor’s degree recipients who work in a job that does not require a bachelor’s degree. This is a tough one because determining what is “under” and what is “just right” is a fine line, to be sure. It may be okay to conjure up a number of jobs that do not require the skills of a BA, but the problem is that almost all of the non-blue collar jobs require a BA just because those employers use the BA as a filter. Even if the work could theoretically be done by a ninth-grade student, at least in cognitive ability, employers throw on the layer of a BA because there are so many of them looking for jobs. In fact, the Burning Glass/Strada report says this “Analysis of employer demand shows a rapid increase in upcredentialed jobs, where employers request a bachelor’s degree in occupations that we have classified as noncollege jobs.” Thus, this trend of overevaluation of educational requirements for positions is increasing.

This is something I have argued loudly for several years. Read my previous Swail Letters, including Beware the Rhetoric About the Over Importance of a BA, Debating How Much Education Society Really Needs,” and my piece from January 7, 2013: Eyes Wide Open: Pulling Back the Curtain on Jobs and Education.

Underemployment is a significant issue that is not being addressed. For students that spend gross totals of over $100,000 towards a career degree program, and many whose net spending is at least a quarter of half of that, this can have a significant impact on return on investment for the individual.

According to the Burning Glass/Strada report, 43 percent of recent graduates in their first job out of college are underemployed. After five years, two thirds of that underemployed group remain underemployed, and after 10 years, almost half of the underemployed remain so. Overall, 21 percent of graduates are underemployed after 10 years. This doesn’t say that their college degree didn’t help them get a job or keep them employed, but it does say that the equity in what a bachelor’s degree provides is certainly unequal for all. For some, the degree becomes the golden ticket to a life of relative wealth, health, and happiness, knowing that all of those things are a fortune of life by situation, opportunity, DNA, or simply fate. For others, starting low can mean keeping low, regardless of degree.


SOURCE: Burning Glass Technologies and Strada Institute for the Future of Work (2018), “The Permanent Detour: Underemployment’s Long-Term Effects on the Careers of College Grads.”

The report also illustrates that graduates who were underemployed earned approximately 23 percent less in earnings than their appropriately employed peers. For women, the outcomes are worse, with higher levels of underemployment (47 percent compared to men’s 37 percent) and larger gaps in earnings. STEM majors fair better than non-STEM majors, and half or more of the graduates in Education, Health Professions, Public Administration, and Liberal Arts are underemployed in their first job.

Given that over two thirds of college students borrow to support their studies and 70 percent of students have remaining debt obligations four years after graduation (averaging $23,200 in 2012), this is a serious issue for a large group of graduates. The reality is that a large percentage of underemployed graduates tend to stay underemployed and earn less than their peers. This is a problem. They start earning less and they always earn less. In a world that has traditionally said that the first job doesn’t matter very much, it seems it does.

The best way to negate this underemployment issue is to turn our focus from degrees to competencies. To be fair, if I am an engineering firm hiring for an engineer, I need to see the engineering degree. Same for medicine, accounting, and lawyering, to a degree.[1] There is just too much knowledge, let alone licensing, that goes with professional degrees. I could argue for teaching and other jobs as well.

But if employers are sifting out most of the workforce by the bachelor’s degree for jobs that either used to go to high school graduates or new jobs that never did really need college, why are we supporting that type of system? The end result is too many people with a degree that won’t pay for itself. Or, if not pay for itself, will not meet the expectations of that degree.

Like many other organizations and experts, I want everyone to have a chance to work towards their potential, whatever that may be. If they want a job and career that requires a college degree, then our society should help them get there, regardless of income or class or any other demographic. But if the degrees and hiring procedures are skewed, the system falls apart.


[1] There are still a handful of states that allow people to take the bar exam without a law degree.

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Double Lighting

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute


Last night I was stopped at a red light. It was late. Not very many cars around. The lights cycled but never gave me a green light. It offered others the opportunity to go, but then it went back to red for my lane. Thus, I sat through two red lights before I finally got a green. Frustrating, right?


I wonder how many times our students feel like they get “double lighted?” That they get in the proper lane, told to stay in that lane, and wait diligently to get where or what they need: financial aid; course registration; student and academic services. It is no wonder that sometimes students feel as if they are penalized for doing as they are told. And we then wonder why students are sometimes non-conforming and seemingly taking short cuts. They just don’t do things the way we expect them to.

Perhaps because they have been double-lighted so many times, students need to try a different pathway. A mouse in a maze typically doesn’t run the same course every time. Rather, they keep trying different routes until they are free. For students, it becomes part of the narrative of not trusting the authorities, because the authorities sometimes turn things into a maze.

To me, it seems that most institutions have the right policies in place and the appropriate systems to get processes done. But to an outside observer, the rules and regulations can be nasty at best and simply cruel at worst. Even for me, a person who has worked alongside financial aid for decades, the process of pushing through financial aid information for my children has been excruciating. It isn’t the FAFSA, per se, but rather the paperwork and regulations that have to be followed to get everything in place. As well, and as it happened for me, some universities apply overarching rules beyond what the federal government requires. At Old Dominion University, they require you to fill out additional paperwork. In my case, I didn’t know that until it was months later, because I had financial aid come through George Mason University with no problem but the ODU loan was stalled and I was never notified. That triggered me a little, I must say.

Students run into the same experiences all the time. Parking police; library issues; residence issues. And everything results in a fine. Everything costs a little extra money if you don’t do exactly as you are told. You may be thinking: “well, you did it; you pay for it.” True, but it does seem that everywhere you turn there is either a fine or some retribution. Professors do this, too. Some are more lenient than others, but some are hard sticklers.

The question I will always pose is simple: does a rule or regulation need to be as is or can it be simplified or reduced? Financial aid is a legal issue, so there is precise documentation in place. That doesn’t solve, for me, why one institution in the same state system requires an extra set of forms compared to other institutions. For professors and others, is there a point to not ever providing leniency on class work? Perhaps, depending on perspective, but I like to think that we are molding and guiding students; not simply cutting them off. People learn by having barriers and regulations in place. There is a reason for most of them. But people withdraw when those barriers become too high.

I understand that some readers and listeners will wave this off as a snowflake piece. I get that. But we also understand that students dropout or stopout of college for some very simple reasons. One more barrier in their face and they go home. It happens every day in America. We can’t solve all of these things, and surely some of these students perhaps are looking for one more excuse to call it quits. But for others, the layers of expectations and getting double-lighted on occasion can push them over the top.

Being a student isn’t always the hardest thing in the world. I tell my kids that these are the easiest times of their lives. That stated, there are times when being a student is very difficult. When the assignments pile up in class, other expectations occur at the same time, and simply too much to do. Some people are really good at this; others not so much. College not only provides an academic education, but it also divides people into those who can follow the rules and those who get caught in the landslide. That is learning, too. But how hard we punish those who fail to meet all the expectations is up for debate.

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The Only Thing We Have to Fear…

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Please listen to our podcast version of The Swail Letter. It’s fun.


Fear seems to be ruling the world right now, especially within the United States. The population has bought into fear-mongering, 85 years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt uttered this phrase:

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Many people today assume Roosevelt was talking about Hitler and the ramping up of World War II, but this quote came seven years before Pearl Harbor. Instead, the President was talking about the devastation left by the 1929 Stock Market Crash which ushered in the Great Depression. The newly-coined President was asserting to people that they shouldn’t be afraid of doing the right thing and should be mindful, if not careful, of doing the wrong thing, which in this case was taking money out of the banks. People were running scared, aided in large part by the newspapers and radio broadcasts. Roosevelt new he had to put a stop to it to save the economy and the nation. Interesting enough, though Roosevelt was talking about domestic politics in his address, it was the 1929 stock market crash that helped bring Hitler and his party to power a few years later. Perhaps the President should have been talking about Hitler after all, since America helped create him. Funny, we seem to have a history of creating world leaders of the worst kind.


Fast forward the better part of a century and we find a nation steeped in fear. This is the political playbook for many, including the GOP, and especially, President Trump. Trump scared his way in to office, for the most part. The “Let’s Make America Great Again” campaign, also known as MAGA, was a ploy to get people to think that the US is a shadow of its former self. It isn’t, of course, and it never was at the same time. The US was never as great as we want to believe it; nor was it as bad as some would have us believe. But the US played such an important role to the world in the last half of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century it has been imprinted upon us that we were the greatest nation and that somehow we aren’t anymore. The US is a great nation. But it doesn’t do everything well and it never did.

Fear mongering doesn’t stop with politics. Our society is based, in large part, on the fear factor. And yes, we even had that TV show in the mid 00s to capitalize on people’s fear. We like horror movies and gross outs. And a quick skim of the 24-hour news channels illustrates our focus on fear, if not hate. We hold within us a fear within politics, fear of what some people will do to others, and fear of natural and unnatural occurrences. As I write this, the TV networks are ablaze with news about Hurricane Florence, and even though it has reduced to a CAT 2 storm, the networks continue to offer the gravest of possible outcomes. I take particular umbrage with the comparison of this storm with Hurricane Katrina, the storm that took out New Orleans. The difference being that Katrina took a direct hit on the Big Easy, a city that resides mostly under sea level, much in the same way as Amsterdam. New Orleans actually faired decently well during Katrina. It was the aftermath that took a toll. The night after the storm hit, all eyes were on the levy that was precariously listing during the storm surge. Once the levy broke (cue Led Zeppelin now), the damage got serious.

Just this morning, former FEMA director Michael Brown, the same guy who took some real heat during Katrina, commented on Fox News that he wished that networks would provide more facts about the dangers rather than use hyperbole (his word) about the potential impact of the storm. But this is what cable news does. It provides an entertainment value through fear.

Newsmagazines have made a killing out of alarming people because it sells magazines. Each year in and out, the top news magazines produce cover articles about (a) God and religion; (b) the end of the world; and yes, (c) the rising cost of college costs, which is, ultimately, my point today.

Politicians, policy analysts, economists, and educators preach loudly about the potential crises for the nation if we fail to increase the number of people going to college. There are plenty of reports of the cost of college, the issues of student debt, and the ROI of higher education. All of these are issues that EPI publishes regularly because they are important. The difference is the use of hyperbole and cherry-picking data by those in the media, including some of my colleagues in academia. The deliberate use of segmented facts becomes the problem. Case in point: I particularly remember the Newsweek cover from April 1996 (below) exclaiming “$1,000 a Week: The Scary Cost of College.” The reality, of course, is that the $1,000 a week pertained only to a small number of elite colleges around the country who, at the time, had a total cost of $50,000/year. Therein lies the $1,000 a week moniker. Twenty-two years later, there are 368 colleges, based on my IPEDS analysis, that have a cost of attendance above $50k, for what this is worth.


The covers below show the interest into these issues: “How Colleges are Gouging U;” “Is College a Lousy Investment;” “Is College Still a Good Investment?” “I Kind of Ruined My Life by Going to College;” and “The College Crunch.”


Similarly, the constant dialogue about the returns to a college degree is interesting. While it is true that the rewards for a higher education produce earnings that outpace lower degrees, it is also true that the increases in this space occur for the “higher” degrees, such as professional and Ph.D. level programs. Bachelor’s degrees have kept earnings pace over time, but even associate’s degrees and certificates are losing ground. The common statement that “College graduates earn a million dollars more than high school graduates,” is a true statement, but we must keenly note that is isn’t true for everyone; it is only true “on average,” and that is a key term.

Average, or the mathematical mean, is the number where we sum up all values and divide by the number of values. In a normal distribution, half of the values are above average and half below. But only in a normal distribution. In a skewed distribution, there are less on one side than another. The median value is a term we use to describe the value of the exact middle of the distribution. For instance, out of 100 values, the place in the middle when we count off 50 from one side and 50 from the other is the statistical median value. In a normal distribution, the mean and median are the same. In a skewed distribution, they are not.

As we learn, we find that many things in life are not “normal” and are somewhat skewed. Incomes are one of the items that are normally skewed. For instance, we have heard much about the top 1 percent of earners, in part, because they earn far more than anyone else. Specifically, the top 1 percent earns about 20 percent of the nation’s total personal income.[1] They also pay about 38 percent of all federal income taxes. The top 5 percent of earners earn 35 percent of total income and pay 59 percent of all federal income taxes. This is an example that shows a skewed distribution, which is why we must make a determination between mean and median values. With regard to income, we typically use median rather than mean values because these skewed values get marginalized. Thus, when we hear about the average returns to education, or the average incomes, we should be very wary. There is a great explanation of this on the web if you are so interested, and I’ll use their example to showcase the problem associated with misrepresentation and hyperbole.

The chart below uses international mean (average) and median income data. Note, in particular, the variation between the grey bars (mean) and red bars (median). For the US, average income is described as $60,000 per year between 2012 and 2014. The median, or middle income, is only about $30,000. How can they be so different? They differ because the distribution of income earners in the US is highly skewed towards the affluent and their high earnings mask the reality of the situation. Some people would like you to believe that the average earnings of Americans is $60,000/year. While statistically accurate, the more representative statistic is that half of Americans earn $30,000 or less. Thus, how we use data and what we use it for is important.



My intention is not to provide a high school-level discussion about measures of central tendency. Rather, this is the problem, in large part, of the fear factor in the US regarding what is real and what is not. It is precisely why the Russians and even those within our borders have isolated people on political and other issues: because they can. They understand that a majority of our population will believe what they are told without inquiry into what is real or fiction. And that, my colleagues, is the United States of America. We are a gullible society, and the rest of the world knows it. What is most remarkable is that people point to the least educated as the problem. The reality is that our highest educated populace is complicit. And they control the money. That is the problem.

I wish we all lived in Lake Wobegon, where “all children are above average.”[2] But we do not. We live in the global society that becomes more intricate every day q q. While some see that as a distortion of the America we grew up in, it is the world that will be. Our youth get it. The Tsunami of internationalization is here, even if Florence may not be.

Data rules. If we do not have good data, we cannot do what we need to do with any efficacy. If we continually battle over bad data, even worse. We need to be better. But we’re not.




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Gaining Faculty Buy-In for Student Retention & Success

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute


Improving student persistence on campus is a primary objective for college and universities. What we clearly understand is that some students have more challenges than others with regard to degree completion, therefore, require more services and attention by faculty and staff.

What we’ve learned over the years is that it truly does take a village to help students succeed. In our case, the primary village is the college and university campus. Other external stakeholders, including and especially family members, and extraordinarily important. But for residential students, campus-based professionals are the main conduits for success.


On many campuses, we see a push-pull, us-versus-them dynamic between instructional staff and other campus employees. The dynamic is one of both perception and reality. Staff members tend to perceive faculty members as not caring enough to adjust their practices to better service students. This isn’t always the case, of course. In fact, in my work, I find it is rarely the case. But it certainly exists. There are instructional faculty that believe—full-heartedly—that students are adults and should not be “coddled” or “hand-held” through postsecondary education. My belief is that helping students succeed is neither coddling or hand-holding. It is simply providing appropriate support for college success. Let us deconstruct this thought for a moment.

Most freshman students in higher education recently turned 18 years of age or are about to turn 18. Recent data from the Beginning Postsecondary Student (BPS) study illustrates that 60 percent of first-time students attending a public four-year institution were 18 years of age or under. Ninety-one percent of these students were 19 years of age or younger.


Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011-12 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, First Follow-up (BPS:12/14).

Thus, our freshman population is still largely “traditional,” meaning that they are of standard college age. A lot of people have been led to believe that our core constituency is older, but data do not support that perception. There are more adult students in higher education than at any other time in history, but first-time, full-time students are largely between the ages of 18 to 19 years of age. A smaller portion of students are actually 17-years old when they matriculate from high school. The point being simple: these are young, less mature students who have never lived on their own or taken care of themselves in many ways. For residential students, most have never lived away from home, never done laundry, and never cooked for themselves, although many freshman students are on a meal plan initially. These students haven’t experienced many of the things that we take for granted. Activities and responsibilities second nature to us are first experiences for freshman students.

In addition, these young students are untested in the larger world. The college experience is an exceptional opportunity for millions of students each year. But it is a scary venture for many. Even the most confident students—those who have been waiting for the opportunity to go to college—are quietly unsure about the entire experience. While this group tends to get over the anxiety faster than others, the anxiety, in itself, is operational for everyone. Something as simple as understanding where to go on campus can cause anxiety among freshman students. To put this in perspective, think of the first time you went on a large city subway, like New York or Chicago, or if you have ventured through the public transportation systems in non-English cities. Solidly in my sixth decade, I still feel anxious doing this. This is the first day for freshman students.

We must remember that faculty members are largely the first line of defense and support on a college campus. Beyond the elaborate electronic solutions that campuses purchase, instructional staff are, by nature, the “early warning” system for colleges. They remain the only people on campus that see students on a regular basis, perhaps beyond residence hall monitors. This, in itself, makes faculty the primary focus of student retention and success on campus.

As noted, the first several weeks of school can be very distressing for students. Institutions put on quite a show during the first weeks of class in an attempt to acclimate students. Still, a large part of the acclimation resides in the classroom. It is important that faculty members help students clearly understand the academic process and expectations. It is especially important to note that most students have never experienced a learning environment like college. Although two-year institutions are more like high school, the four-year experience is different in almost all respects. There are less classes, more free time, and the expectation that students are in charge of their learning. Faculty members who believe that students come pre-packaged and ready to learn are somewhat naive. Even for commuter students, the college campus is a very different environment than high school. For these reasons, I encourage instructors to assume that students know little or nothing about the process. Instructional staff must be extremely clear about course expectations and preach to students what it takes to be successful. They need to talk about the readings and other assignments that need to be completed outside of class time and how much time they should expect to spend on these activities. Students must understand the importance of keeping up with their course work and to hand in assignments on time. They also need to know what happens to them when they do not do these things.

Many faculty members complain that there are too many activities during the first weeks of class, effectively taking away from the academic focus. I have heard about students coming to class exhausted because they were out at major campus events the night before. This happens. While the university is trying to ensure that students are acclimated and welcomed to the institution, there needs to be a balance between the welcoming events and the academic focus. This provides another opportunity for the instructor to talk directly to students about how to handle these time-management issues.

We also know from research and anecdotal sources that many students do not possess the study, note-taking, time management, and reading skills to keep up with course work. Institutions typically provide many resources to help students come up to speed on these issues. First-Year Experience programs, tutoring centers, and writing and math labs provide important support, to mention a few. But there are two truths here. First is that the students who need the most help are the ones that tend not to seek it out. The second is that these support activities, as helpful as they may be, cannot ameliorate all academic issues in one fell swoop. It takes time. This is a major adjustment for students that can be helped by showing them best practices for completing readings and assignments. For freshman students and gatekeeper courses, it is always good to ramp up reading and homework assignments by breaking them up into smaller chunks and helping students learn about how to work through the material. Over time, the assignments and expectations can become more complex and difficult.

As an early warning facilitator, faculty should also be involved with First-Year Experience and other retention professionals on campus to let others know when students are hemorrhaging in their work. The classroom instructor is the only person that knows if students are coming to class. Instructors should keep a gauge on this, either by taking attendance or noting assignment completions. Some faculty members use regular, in-class assignments to take note who is in attendance and who is not. Other institutions use card scanners and other electronic means to take attendance. Regardless of how this is handled, instructors need to know which students are not attending regularly and let those in the student success offices know.

In the end, instructional faculty should be as involved as they can be, understanding full well that the level of interaction and support varies greatly between students. There is only so much time available, such that faculty members must gauge their involvement. It is helpful when instructional staff understand the various supports on campus and can guide and direct students appropriately. It is important to remember that our purpose in higher education is to help students learn and persist to degree. We know that some won’t make it through no fault of our own. But we should always ensure that we live up to our end of the social compact.

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 Learning When to Take a Knee

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute


When I was a teenager growing up in Winnipeg, I played football and team handball. Those were my two “go to” sports. I was good at both, better at the latter and decent at the former. I wasn’t a big guy, which hurt me a bit in football. I made up with it because I was a smart football player, I must say. I understood the game, if that makes sense. I still do, in fact, until the point where I’m completely and utterly wrong about everything football.

In deconstruction, I was sensible; dedicated; caring; hard working. I wasn’t close to being the best player on the team—not remotely close—but I was the hardest worker on the team. Every practice. Every time.


I would like to think it was my profound physical talent that won the Fort Garry Lions three consecutive provincial championships (equivalent to state). It wasn’t, of course. But we were a very, very good football team.

I remember the championship game one year. I believe it was 1978. Snow. Cold. This was Winnipeg, to be fair. November. Did I say cold? Man, it was cold. We played in a place called the Velodrome in Winnipeg, which was a cycling ring with a football field in the middle. The concrete on the outside made it that much colder looking and feeling. I am so pleased they tore that thing down. I believe it is a Starbucks and Home Depot now.

My team was kicking the crap out of the other team. I honestly cannot remember who they were; it may have been East Kildonan. I don’t know. But we were there to beat them and we were beating them to a pulp.

By the fourth quarter, I had no significant feeling in any of my extremities. But my most profound moment of amateur football came in the final minute of play. As stated, we were kicking these guys. It was a lopsided win. We had been quietly celebrating for five minutes because it was a done deal. In the final 60 seconds, we were up by, I’m sure, 20 points. I don’t remember exactly how much, but enough that this was a sealed and delivered deal. We were on offence and within striking distance. In fact, we were in the red zone. In amateur ball, if you have a good team, 20 yards is nothing. We could do that, especially at the end when we have momentum and adrenaline and they were facing defeat and cold and downtrodden. Easy peasy.

Our head coach was a good guy but he was going crazy. He hated the other coach and the other team. So much yelling. Everything you really don’t want to see in amateur sports. We were the soon-to-be championship team and we were acting like hacks. This is a group of 16-18-year-olds. Old enough to get in tremendous trouble but young enough to be very impacted by the actions of their elders and confidents. Beyond the euphoria and hysterics of adolescence, that age group doesn’t need crazy adults directing them. Still, this is what was transpiring on a frozen tundra in the middle of Winnipeg, Manitoba, that cold Saturday afternoon. Our coach called for us to stuff it down the opposition’s throats and score another touchdown. Some of our team, including the captains, were rambunctious in approval.

I was not.

I found the suggestion to score again, in the last minute of the game, repugnant. I was on the sideline at the time (did I mention I wasn’t the best player on the team?) and remember walking over to the coaches and yelling at them to “down the ball.” That is, play out the clock. We didn’t need more points. Our opponents could not win. There was no need to inflict any more damage. Of course, we were taught not to like the opponent. Football is a gladiator sport and they were our enemy. In my mind, the damage was done. An infliction was made. Our opponents knew the score. And so did we. There was no reason to drill the message down their collective throats.

Still, no one listened. The coach continued to shout. Veins popped. I said again, “Down the Ball!!! We don’t need to do this!!!” The message echoed, largely unheard. Finally, one of the assistant coaches walked over me and said, “I heard you. You are right, but calm down.” He walked over to the head coach and forcefully convinced him to down the ball. We did. Guess what? We won anyway.

This was a story I remembered tonight. I’ve thought of it many times before, but something brought it back tonight and it made me write it down. This moment was a big piece of my youth education. I’m not saying I was better than anyone. I sure wasn’t on the football field, although I’ll always be proud of my work ethic. I could throw, punt, kick, run. I could do it all. But I was also 155 pounds and five-foot-seven. My football partner was a combination of rocket ship and cargo train. I was good. Just not good enough.

But my mind was right. I had the right attitude. I worked hard. And perhaps more importantly, I had, and still do, a respect for the other side. There is a time to fight. A time to endure. And a time to let it go and move forward.

I’m not sure where it came from, but I guess I have to thank my parents for both the DNA and the fortitude to understand bad, good, and better; the right things to do, even, and especially, when we didn’t do those things. Something clicked in my older brothers and me. And most of my friends and teammates were the same way. Not all of them, though. We didn’t always learn the same lessons or understand the same things.

How we raise kids—how we teach and let them learn—are critical endeavors on the lives of youth. How we articulate the importance of hard work, of empathy in the art of winning while also being appreciative of the effort of the opposition when you lose. We’re all in the same game. Only one team will win. The other team still played and still got to the final game. They had something in them, too. They just didn’t do it on that day. We did. I’m not sure I’d say it was a coin flip. It was good coaching, solid conditioning, and so many nights after school on either a sickly warm or deathly cold field that it was hard to count. It was mom leaving dinner under a pie plate in the oven so we could eat at 9:30 or 10:00pm. It was 40 plus guys, plus the coaches and trainers and everyone else who gave their time for something “more.” This situation still plays out across the US and Canada year round. Early morning skates or laps at the pool. Late night training.

This is the attitude we need now. I look across the United States, where I have lived for the past 28 years, and even across my homeland of Canada, where I lived for the first 28, and this much is clear: we need more. The human condition is such that it can cut us down at the knees if we let it; if we listen just a little bit too hard, it can cut us deeply. Our world seems a little too much of “us versus them.” Sometimes I feel like I am back on the cold battle field of a “game” where I am questioning what our goal is. Is it to win? Or is it to play the game fairly, prudently, and proudly?

I can bring in a bunch of statistics and other information to show how the playing field is so stacked against some groups of our youth. If you are a young student who is poor, Black, Hispanic, Native American, or first generation, the tables are stacked against you. The numbers don’t lie. The numbers are devastating.

Back in 1997, when I worked for the College Board, First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke at our National Forum in Chicago. I remember it like it was yesterday, only because I like clichés. But I do remember the day vividly. It was Hillary’s birthday, so it must have been October 26th, in fact, somewhere on West Wacker. The College Board crew brought out a humongous cake for her. Kind of corny, but that’s what you do at these things. The crowd loved her, of course, given that most educators are, for better or worse, of that political attire.

But it is what Hillary said that struck me to my core. This isn’t politics, folks, so don’t read that into this diatribe of mine. The First Lady did all the niceties and thanked all the people. She was a Chicagoan, for what it was worth. She then launched into a description of her visit to an elementary school earlier that day. She told a story of a couple of girls who were dressed up in their Sunday bests, because, of course, they knew they would be meeting the First Lady. And they showed Ms. Clinton their work and were proud, as they should have been. Then the First Lady said this:

“I looked at those girls in the eyes, and in my heart, I knew they didn’t have a chance.”

That statement was profound to me, for several reasons. First, because it was true. These girls, from a desperate area of Chicago, without the necessary resources and family commitment and all the other things that plague low-income families, had such a massive hurdle in front of them. To them, they were showing their best work. But it was only evidence of how much behind they truly were.

This moment also resonated with me because the First Lady, with press present in the hall, told it as it was, even though it wasn’t pretty. She told the truth. “In my heart, I knew they didn’t have a chance.” I was floored. I remember thinking to myself: “Oh my, this isn’t going to play well on NBC tonight.”

It never played on NBC. Or ABC. Or CBS. Or even CNN. It didn’t play at all that night.

I’m not sure why. It was kill cream and the networks like nothing better than a soundbite that can cause excruciating pain. It isn’t fake news, but let’s be real, the networks—all of them—want fresh blood. They always do. Don Henley had it right: they want dirty laundry. But they let this one go. I remained flabbergasted. Maybe it was a busy news day. Maybe they didn’t care. And maybe they let her go with that one. I kind of wish everyone saw it, although I’m sure Newt and the Gang (they sang Celebration several years before) would have had a field day.

Twenty-years earlier, I sat on the sidelines after the clock ran down. We were the provincial champions. It was the second of three for me. But I was cold; frozen. Everyone around me was celebrating. I took a moment to myself. There was something about that moment. I was proud of winning, but I was also proud of taking a stand against my authorities to “play better.” In retrospect, that isn’t a lesson that a young man should be teaching an elder, but that’s how it went down. I took a stand, even how little, against bullying against some team that was at the losing end of a championship game.

I was 17.

I don’t know what the press were thinking that day back in 1997 just south of the Chicago River. My football exploits and a chance encounter with Hillary do not make a linear analogy, but something in my mind brought these two pieces today. It was a bit of civility in a constant civil war between what is decent and what is much less so.

I understand that a lot of people do not think very highly of Hillary Clinton in this country. I don’t agree, but everyone is equally entitled to their opinion. On that morning, 21 years ago, my jaw dropped, thinking: “Wow. She had the balls to say that in public. Good for her.”

We need to do better. We need to give people some slack while always asking for their best. We need to understand that people have different stresses and issues. Not everyone can win, and winning, sorry, isn’t the goal. Having one team win over everyone else is ‘sport,’ but it sure as hell isn’t life. We need to understand that some of the people in our society have it really, really hard. We all have hard times. We all have life and death struggles. Hardships and happiness. For some, there is much less rather than much more. It remains a struggle for 40 percent of our society. Perhaps more.

“A civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” A quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, but apparently words that never left his lips. Still, the words speak truth. Something to remember.

In the end, we need to do better. It starts by deciding how we should treat each other.


“Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”

-Pearl Buck (1892-1973), Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1932



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Improving College Access and Success

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

There is much talk about increasing college access and success for students in the United States, especially for those populations who are historically underrepresented in higher education, such as low-income, first generation, and minority students. While access rates have increased over the years, we clearly understand that equity has not been achieved and that large gaps remain between the haves—White and Asian populations—and Black, Hispanic, and other minority groups. We have done much to move the equity issue forward, but let’s be clear: we have far, far to go to achieve this dream.


For over 50 years, federal and state policy has focused primarily on college access to higher education.[i] Landmark legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965, propelled the access principle for higher education in an attempt to level the playing field. Since those early years, and with many other legislative and programmatic efforts (e.g., Pell Grant, federal loan programs, Headstart, TRIO and GEAR UP), access for all students has increased, especially those from low-income, first-generation, and minority backgrounds. However, while college matriculation rates have increased and the gaps between ethnic and other groups have lessened, equity is far from apparent. For instance, Black and Hispanic students still:

  • graduate from high school at rates 10-15 percent lower than White students, as do low-income students;[ii]
  • remain far less prepared for college than White students;[iii]
  • matriculate to college at lower rates.[iv] and
  • enroll at selective institutions at lower rates than White, Asian, and affluent students.

The following exhibit illustrates the challenges that still face students of color, which are mirrored (but not illustrated herein) for low-income and first-generation students. As illustrated, more White students attend four-year institutions compared to Black and Hispanic students, including private, not-for-profit institutions. Conversely, almost half of all Hispanic students that enter college begin at a two-year institution, compared to only one third of White students. It isn’t always whether students go to college; rather, it does matter where they enroll and attend.

Exhibit 1. Total distribution of fall undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary education institutions, by institution type and race/ethnicity, 2016


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Spring 2017, Fall Enrollment component.

Once students do get to college, the barriers only seem to get taller. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and analyzed by researchers at RTI, 60 percent of full-time, first-time, degree-seeking students who began their studies in 2008 at a four-year institution graduated with a bachelor’s degree within six years.[v] The graphic below illustrates two important points. The first is that the completion rates of historically-underrepresented students in our colleges and universities is much lower rates than White and Asian students. Comparatively, 71 percent of Asians and 63 percent of White students earned a BA within six years, while 54 percent of Hispanic students, 50 percent of native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students, 41 percent of American Indian/Alaskan Natives, and 41 percent of Black students earned a BA within that time period. The gap between White and Black students remains about 22 percent.

The graphic also depicts completion by gender. In every category, women outpace men in graduation rates by between 0.2 and 9.5 percent. The largest gender gaps exist within the Hispanic and Black groups, and the lowest being within Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders.

Exhibit 2. Six-year graduation rates of bachelor’s degree seeking students attending four-year institutions, by race/ethnicity, and gender, 2008-2014


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Graphic and data analysis by the Educational Policy Institute.

Another challenge, and perception issue in higher education, is the timing of when students dropout from college. The predominant thought in higher education is that most students stopout or dropout of college during or immediately after the first year. However, data illustrates that this is typically not the case. The exhibit below shows that students who started at a public four-year institution in fall 2003 dropped out over a long period of time.[vi] In total, 65 percent of students who began their studies at a four-year public institution earned a degree within six years. At the end of six years, 13 percent of students were still enrolled. Thus, 22 percent of students left without earning a degree of any type. As illustrated, most students who dropped out left after the start of their third year (16 percent). Three percent left in each of the first two years, 5 percent in the third year, and 11 percent during or after the fourth year.

Exhibit 3. Departure rates and times for all first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began their studies at a four-year institution, 2004-2009


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Beginning Postsecondary Student (BPS: 04/09). Graphic and data analysis by the Educational Policy Institute.

Several years ago, EPI built the EPI Retention Calculator to determine approximate cost of losing students to attrition. Even for the smallest institutions, the valuation runs into seven digits very quickly. For larger institutions, tens of millions of dollars are lost on students that enroll and disappear. In the end, college is not the best of business models, with the exception of institutions that simply play the shark-tooth model of enrollment: for every student they lose, they simply replace them with someone else. To be fair and accurate, institutions of higher education, on average, enroll approximately 140 percent of their desired freshman class due to their accepted attrition numbers.

The test analysis below using the EPI Retention Calculator illustrates the cost for a small, four-year institution that enrolls 1,000 freshman students each fall. Given the assumptions made below, the outcomes are as follows: the cost of losing students in one academic year exceeds $11 million. Over a four-year period, that amount increases to $25 million. This example is for a small institution. For medium and larger institutions, the numbers are dramatic.

Exhibit 4. Cost of student departure for fictitious institution using EPI Retention Calculator.




If we truly want to increase equity in college access and success, we have to focus on three critical issues: academic preparation, college costs and financial aid, and academic structures.

ACADEMIC PREPARATION. Improving the academic preparation and college knowledge of students is paramount to increasing college access and success. Data clearly link college success with high school GPA, SAT/ACT scores, as well as other academic indicators of preparation. This is, by far, the greatest barrier to going to and succeeding in college, bar none. When students are not adequately academically and socially prepared for college, they simply do not apply nor attend. This is as much a “college knowledge” issue, drawing language from my friend and colleague David Conley, as anything else. Students need to understand college in order to prepare for it. If the notion of “college” remains out of a student’s lexicon, his or her chances of ever going to college are greatly diminished.

What do we do about it? It’s easy: improve our K12 system. Kidding aside, if we stopped stuffing so much content into the secondary curriculum and focus on less we would most certainly do more. We understand clearly that students who do not read do not perform, and reading is a skill that more affluent and White youth embrace at a young age than other students. The 2017 NAEP reading scores clearly illustrate that Black, Hispanic, Pacific Islanders, American Indians, and low-income students lag far behind in their reading skills than White and more affluent students.[vii] Over the past 25 years, the reading scores of fourth-grade students on NAEP have stayed almost level. While people like to focus on mathematics, which is undeniably important, reading and writing is the real gatekeeper to anything that matters in society. Teaching students these requisite skills and spending years honing it is the best way to preparation, but as the NAEP scores show, the damage is largely done by elementary school.

Secondly, teaching students about college and career is critical to proper preparation for post-high school life. Our youth need to know what the opportunities are in the workforce and what it takes to get there. Understanding what college is and what academic and financial preparation is required to get there is something we must ensure every child and family understands.

COLLEGE COSTS AND FINANCIAL AID. Increasing financial aid and controlling the cost of college are key pieces of keeping students in college. After academic preparation, the cost—or price—of college is the second primary reason students do not succeed in college. For low-income students, college costs have remained relatively stable once Pell grants and other need-based aid are added into the formula. Still, financial pressures on these students grow over time, resulting in a higher rate of departure beyond the first year of college. They hang on, but only for a while longer. Finance gets in the way of degree completion. Part of this issue is ensuring there is enough need-based aid available for students. The other is ensuring that colleges control their costs and reduce the annual inflationary pressures of tuition, fees, and room and board. If these costs continue to escalate the way they have over the past 30-plus years, no amount of financial aid will keep pace. Something has to give before the system blows up. The bubble is about ready to burst.

ACADEMIC AND DEGREE STRUCTURES. The current structure of higher education, especially the four-year experience, seems somewhat arcane in today’s society. However, we still cling to the four-year, 120 credit hour system like a life raft in a vast ocean full of sharks and predators. The system has surely evolved over the years, nonetheless the system seems very similar to that of the 1960s—50 years ago. I ask this question: does our society look a lot like the 1960s? Do the jobs and economy look the same? Do our people even look the same? As with society, higher education needs to progress, too. There is no real reason to have a four-year program if the same can be taught quicker. As a parent who has paid for three kids to go to college, I wasn’t enamored with stroking a tuition and fee check, plus room and board and books, to cover physical activity credits and other courses that were not either of interest or aligned to my sons’ degree programs. This isn’t to take away from a liberal arts or any other carefully articulated degree program. All programs should be carefully thought out and derived. There is an inordinate amount of waste in higher education that amounts as much to an institution’s historical inertia or culture of regression to the mean than anything else. We do it this way because that’s the way it has been done. Not a great business plan.

Some programs are now pushing for longer degree programs past four years at a time when we should be considering the reduction of years and credits to degree. I’m sure that we can come up with a 90-credit degree program that results in similar outcomes as current 120-credit programs. For professional degrees, they can require a master’s degree beyond the three-year degree to move forward. There are other ways to do this thing we call college.

As well, let us reduce the number of gatekeeper courses in non-degree related areas. Sure, faculty want to ensure that their students are “well rounded” in the various disciplines, but as I have opined many times before, an English major really doesn’t need another mathematics course. Did they complete their high school math requirement? If so, can’t we say they are done in the math field? It can be argued that less than 1 percent of society needs advanced calculus, or any calculus at all. As a statistician who completed over 30 undergraduate credits in mathematics, including number theory and other mindblowing courses, I can safely say that I probably used 10 percent of my college mathematics knowledge in the real world. Most of my statistical knowledge is based on understanding software, not math. Purists will recant on that, even though it is the truth. I learned the three Ms in middle school: Mean, Median, and Mode. Again, I do not suggest that mathematics and STEM is not important. Clearly, STEM is more important than ever in our society and economy. However, it is much less important for someone not entering a STEM career. Let us reduce gatekeepers that keep people from progressing and also reduce the time to degree for a bachelor’s and other degree programs.

These are solutions that are simply in print and much less simple in the real world. Regardless, we have to start somewhere. And we must start soon.


[i] Financial Aid is Not Enough (Gladieux, Swail, 1998).


[iii] The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2016. ACT.

[iv] U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), October, 1970 through 2016. (Retrieved February 13, 2018 by EPI).




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A New Plan for Student Debt?

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute


Although four years late, House Republicans and Democrats are looking at a potential reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which used to be reauthorized every four years during the 70s, then pushed to six years in the 80s and 90s, and now will likely be 10 years for the last two reauthorizations (2008 and 2018). Yet another sign that Congress has trouble doing their base job.


In December 2017, Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC) introduced H.R. 4506, the “Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act,” aka the PROSPER Act. The Act contains many provisions which are non-starters for every Democrat and likely many Republicans, including removing or reducing certain grant and loan programs. In fact, the PROSPER Act calls for the dismantling of the DIRECT Loan program, which was initiated by the Clinton Administration and completed by the Obama Administration. DIRECT loans basically took the programs away from banks, who had, for years, made billions on the back of students. Interestingly, the PROSPER Act focuses on reducing and removing many programs. The GOP, as a core philosophy, believe that federal subsidies, in the form of grants and loans, provide incentives to institutions to increase the price of higher education. Justin Draeger, the President of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), said this: “On its surface, the idea that federal, state, or other public subsidies would lead to higher, inflated prices resonates. But the higher-education funding landscape is far too complex to attribute price increases to any single factor or source of funding.” He is correct, because for many Republicans, this message does resonate. And they aren’t altogether wrong, either. Anytime increases in subsidies are made, there is an associated increase in price. While Draeger is correct that the system is sufficiently complex to make a 1:1 comparison, many of us policy analysts have noted this for several decades. It’s true that it isn’t pretty, but it rings pretty true nonetheless.

This week, House Democrats are making their pitch for the HEA reauthorization through the Aim Higher Act, with a major piece of the proposal focused on establishing free, or at least debt-free, college for students. According to Democrats, the plan is to reduce student debt, which, according to information on their website, has resulted in a 35 percent decline in homeownership since 2007.[1]

Both parties are in favor of reducing debt, but only one party is truly interested in a free higher education. Thus, the Democrat response is also a non-starter. I’ve written and spoken often about “free” higher education. I’m not a proponent of it because it isn’t appropriate or prudent public policy. At a time of high deficits, now made remarkably higher by the imprudent tax cuts from last year, removing the cost of college is far too costly a burden for the federal government, especially when public higher education is a state issue. An idea in theory, but not one that is politically or financially palatable to policymakers.

It is true that affordable and equitable higher education is critical for this nation’s future. Higher education isn’t for everyone, especially university-level education, but it should be an affordable option and choice for everyone who desires it. And while we talk much about the cost of college, we understand that the real barrier to college isn’t cost, although it is a significant barrier to many potential students, but rather, academic preparation. Many students do not go to college because they simply do not have the academic wherewithal to succeed at that level. Still, other students do go to college and dropout because they aren’t appropriately prepared. So, if we really want to get more people to college, yet another worthwhile discussion, then we need to do the nitty-gritty work of providing all students with an adequate and relevant primary and secondary education. Without that, the remainder of this conversation about free higher education is completely moot.

The Democrats, of course, have another large challenge to push their college free agenda, and that is that public higher education remains a state responsibility, paid mostly by state funds. Sure, the federal government provides assistance via federal voucher (e.g., Pell Grants) and subsidized and unsubsidized loan programs, but it is miniscule compared to what states invest. Any federal reauthorization of the HEA that involves forcing certain actions on states will receive major push back from those states, including those headed by Democrat lawmakers, in many cases.

Both bills would work to simplify the FAFSA, and the GOP would streamline federal aid programs while Democrats would tinker and up funding for the programs, or at least authorization. The Democrats bill would provide more focus on student supports. The Republican bill would focus more on changing the nature of the HEA in many ways. Both have valid points, but some are more untenable than others. Visit the Chronicle of Higher Education and for more details about these ultra-complex discussions.

In the end, this is where we are. Given that it is July 2018, there is little chance that we will see an HEA before 2019. But at some point the Congress has to do their job. Congress works best when the two parties collaborate and negotiate middle ground. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the nature anymore, as there is little or no trust between colleagues. The Supreme Court nomination process has seen to that.

That’s our Swail Letter for July 25th 2018. We welcome your thoughts and questions, so please post your viewpoint. As always, please share this Swail Letter and associated Podcast with your friends and colleagues.



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The Higher Education Machine

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute


I receive emails and have emails forwarded to me of the many companies that provide consulting services to higher education. As a disclaimer, EPI provides consulting as well, mostly through my personal keynotes and workshops at institutions. However, the sheer scale of the third-party vendor arena is mindnumbing. Literally thousands of companies are vying to help higher education on a number of matters, including but not limited to: Strategic enrollment, retention, admissions, teaching and learning, customer relationship management, alumni donors, and financial aid including loan repayment. This is a small list, each one its own domain and industry.


This suggests a few questions. First, it makes me question in what type of shape higher education is to need so many consultants. Why is the expertise not able to be provided from within?

The answer is a bit complex, of course. Institutions go outside for help for a number of reasons. First, they can quickly get assistance by finding a capable consultant from the field. Second, if they choose correctly, they can find someone who has extensive experience—more than those on staff and with a varied composition of history and experience—to help identify problems and provide solutions. And third, and perhaps most importantly, most people do not trust the experience from within. This is a sociological phenomenon that plagues organizations and institutions. I was told so many years ago, and I paraphrase, that “an expert from within is never seen as a Pharaoh from afar,” meaning that outside people are always seen as more valuable than those from within the organization.

Sometimes it is very useful to have these external eyes and ears helping your internal teams. However, many consultants and experts will attest that some of the best ideas come from within. The problem is that no one listens to them.

The number of consulting firms is breathtaking. It is difficult to get away from the emails and mailers offering support. And from my vantage point, most of these are startups and companies less than five-years old. And—I find this surprising—that many of them are run by younger people without the requisite experience of a seasoned veteran from the trenches. They provide strategies and solutions without the history and experience. Not sure how well it works, but they exist so there must be an appetite within higher education.

As well, many of the new consulting firms are focused on technological solutions. I always thought that universities have long been engaged in the game of “one-upping” their competition by finding the best recruits via cutting edge analytics and CRM. These things work, but in the end, one must wonder if it is a zero-sum game. If everyone is playing the same game with the same types of tools, to who’s advantage does this play?

I believe that much of this is driven by two factors. The first being the necessarily evil, especially for private institutions, to balance their tuition discounting and seating a freshman class. This is the essential foundation of enrollment management, but it is an increasingly important piece of the puzzle that gets more difficult to do as the gap between ability to pay and net price expands each year. I also think that the mission creep of institutions and the interest in growing enrollment puts an added pressure on many institutions. All of this is happening in an era where enrollment is likely to top out while the economy is on overdrive.

Making things a bit worse is the sheer economy of higher education. From an economic perspective, it can easily be argued that there are too many institutions of higher education in the US system. Please refer to our June 7th EPIGraph that showcases the 6,502 Title IV approved institutions in the US, meaning that every one of them receives taxpayer supported funding via Pell grants and federally-sponsored loan programs. That is, all 6,502 institutions are publicly subsidized to some degree.

What has happened over the years is that higher education has created an external supplier culture that may actually dwarf the size of higher education itself. Food services, housing, books, supplies, and educational technologies are a few of the base suppliers of services on campus. Most food services on campus are provided by third-party vendors, and most institutions have multi-year contracts with a technology supplier for computers and other goods. Now we are seeing outsourcing of basic services, including recruitment. More recently, we have seen external companies offering academic and other advising for students—virtually.

And this begs my final thought. Now that we have suppliers providing actual academic content to institutions in the form of online synchronous and asynchronous lectures and courses, what is the purpose of higher education as we know it? This becomes a philosophical question about the purpose of a “higher” education. This is less about two-year institutions and more about four-year universities. Much has been expressed about the value of the residential experience on a college campus. Some have said, that for many students, the networking and friends built may be more important than the learning itself. Ask many employers and what sticks out to them about prospective employees is the name of the institution rather than the degree itself. People buy their future via the institution they attend.

If we take the upper echelon of institutions out of the equation for a moment and focus on the other institutions, do the same outcomes exist? Does the ROI of lesser versus higher institutions meet the same value? Likely not, but it doesn’t mean or suggest that the investment isn’t worth it to the individual. I, for one, was never a residential student. Out of those, three were public institutions and one was a highly-selected institution. Inthese four colleges I attended between the ages of 18 and 34, I was always the commuter. In the end, I still had my networks and I still had the experience. Just a bit differently, I suppose.

Go forward 10 years. How much of the services—including teaching—will come from beyond the campus? Will our college experience resemble anything we went through? What impact may that have on our future employees and citizens? And at what cost?



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The SAT, ACT, and College Admissions

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

We invite colleagues to listen to the most interesting podcast of this Swail Letter below.


THREE WEEKS AGO I wrote a Swail Letter called College Admissions, Selectivity, and Grit. The article focused on how many of our colleges and universities were selective enough to make the admissions process majorly complex. My conclusion was that there were a lot more moderately selective institutions than I thought. Thus, the admissions game is complex and difficult for hundreds, and arguably thousands, of institutions in the US. Less than a week later after posting that article, the University of Chicago, an uber-selective institution, announced that it would not use the SAT in their admissions process. Typically, this comes with some misguided fanfare by those who fight for equity in the college-going arena.


With this announcement, I feel that it is worthy of a brief discussion of what makes equity and the role of college admissions and other related tests. My conclusion at the start of today’s article is simple: getting rid of the SAT does little or nothing positive for the equity agenda in postsecondary education. Especially by the very selective institutions, such as UChicago, which has an entering class with an average SAT composite of 1540 out of 1600.[1] That places it in the top handful of institutions in the US and perhaps the world. According to, the University of Chicago requires candidates to be in the top 1 percent of SAT test takers. Here is what their numbers look like:


What this means for UChicago is pretty simple: all of their students are at the top of the SAT and academic spectrum. And because of this, the SAT fails to add much to the formula. For example, if you had a college readiness indicator from 1 thru 10, what help would it be if all your prospects were 10s? None at all because it doesn’t vary your group in any way. The idea of a test is to spread people out so there are differences. Tests are generally not designed so that everyone gets an A on them unless it is a competency-based test where you need to ensure that everyone understands all of the information. But on a test like the SAT or another nationally-normed instrument, the purpose is to discriminate people by what they know and understand. The fact that most of the applicants at UChicago are in the top 1 percent of the SAT shows that the test, at this level, does not discriminate in a way to help the institution’s admissions process. Why? Because the pond is very large for a relatively small fish. Put another way, UChicago, just like the top-echelon schools, attract the greatest academic talents from around the world for a very small number of spots. Thus, they are creaming their possibilities by the sheer nature of supply and demand.

It is important to know that the SAT was created back in the early 1900s as an instrument of equity. Even though Harvard was the first colonial college back in 1636, colleges were still in relative infancy in the late 19th Century and were, by nature, selective by the fact that mostly wealthy or connected youth went to college. The others were working fields or in factories. Keep in mind that, back in this time period, only half of White and one-third of Black youth went to any proper school.[2] Although we do not have college-going data back that far, even as recent as 1940, only 10 percent of the population went to college, and half of those attended technical schools as opposed to a “university.”[3] Heck, for what it is worth, back in 1900, there were a total of 997 postsecondary institutions of any type. Today? There are 3,781 two-year, less-than two-year, and four-year public and private not-for-profit institutions. Add in the proprietary sector and the number jumps to 6,502 (visit our EPIGraph of June 7, 2018 for details).

The SAT, though, was created in 1926 by the “College Entrance Examination Board,” still the legal name of what we know today as the “College Board.” The test was to measure academic prowess and provide some equity to work against legacy interests in higher education. Because so few students were going to higher education, most came from affluent families and those who had gone to college before. The members of the College Entrance Examination Board, including Harvard, Penn, NYU, Bryn Mawr, and eight other exclusive institutions, wanted to open the doors to other deserving students who did not have the connections or legacy to warrant admission. Interesting in retrospect that the SAT and ACT tests are looked at as dividers of equity given intended origin.

Understanding the academic quality of the freshman class (and thus, every other class) at the University of Chicago, and also knowing that only 1 in 12 applicants is admitted to the institution, the SAT isn’t very useful for the selection process. For other institutions, college entrance exams remain an important piece of the admissions formula.

Most people are told that the number one indicator of college success is the high school grade point average (HSGPA) and many believe—or are told—that the SAT and ACT are not very good predictors of college success. As I told a group of Admissions professionals at the EMAS Pro Conference last week, if I were to use only one variable to predict college success, it would simply be family income because wealth is the ultimate determinant in this country of level of education and preparation for college. Wealth as an admissions variable doesn’t provide anything remotely close to an equity or diversity outcome, but it would guarantee me the best academic class that I could muster.

There are other important predictive criteria, though, such as previous academic prowess. High School GPA, class rank, SAT/ACT scores, and class rigor are a few of the choice variables that admissions personnel tend to use to build their applicant pool. Well, there is one other important variable: ability to pay. And yes, the admissions essay and other soft pieces are important, but they only matter if you make it over the first or second hurdles. Trust me: 10,000 applicant letters do not get read at a single university in the summer. Only those that make the first or second cut do.

In 2016, the College Board conducted a predictive validity analysis of the revised SAT versus other variables.[4] As can be seen in the Table 3 graphic below, the SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) section has the highest correlation with first-year GPA (0.51). High School GPA has a 0.48 correlation. Thus, the SAT has a slightly higher predictive value of the FYGPA than HSGPA. This is interesting because that is not what people say or think. What we do know is this: combining a number of these variables improves the overall predictive validity. Using the SAT EBRW, the SAT Math, and the HSGPA improves the correlation to 0.58. Using the r-squared value, this still only answers less than a third of the variance. In other words, two thirds or other variables not apparent here predict a student’s first year GPA. By the way, these predictors basically only predict the FYGPA. After the first year, there is not a variable that statistically explains success.


The figure below simply illustrates the correlation between SAT score and FYGPA while controlling for HSGPA. As can be seen in each set of columns, the SAT and FYGPA, regardless of the HSGPA, are in stepwise correlation, meaning that there is a positive and direct correlation between the two.


What, then, is the purpose of the University of Chicago announcing their non-use of the SAT? They are not alone, of course. Other major selective schools, including Bates, Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr (one of those institutions that helped create the SAT, no less), my alma mater The George Washington University, Sarah Lawrence, Wesleyan, and UT Austin are some of those who do not require the SAT or ACT.[5] But the answer to the question is two-fold. First, because, as stated, the applicants to these institutions are of the highest level to begin with and given the high correlation between the SAT and HSGPA, the SAT does not give them enough additional information to be helpful in the admissions process. And second, there is a major PR bump from going against the flow and saying you do not require the SAT. It is a tip of the hat to the equity agenda, even though eliminating the SAT does virtually nothing to support equity. Institutions, especially private institutions, can do almost anything they want in the admissions process, with some exception for race-based admissions policies. They can give more points for athletes; more points for legacy students; and they also play a game with the ability to pay criteria via tuition discounting. The more money they can get from a student and/or parent without tuition discounts is a better student to many institutions. It isn’t how we necessarily want to see things but it is kind of how the way they are.

I hope this analysis and discussion is of interest to you. We are always interested in your thoughts. Visit and post your viewpoint. As always, please share The Swail Letter and this podcast with your colleagues.


[2] (Figure 1, Page 6).

[3] (Table 4, Page 18).


[5] Go to this link to see a nice write up on this issue as well as the list of colleges that do not require an admissions test. (

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