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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The Complex “Question” of Gender Identity

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


Which gender are you? Seems like a simple question, but not so much anymore. With the coming US Census as well as other annual surveys by the federal government in the US and in other countries around the world, there are more considerations about how we get to the issue of gender identity and sexual preferences. This is an issue that will impact every school district, college, and university to some degree.


Copyright Luc Vernimmen

According to Gallup, 3.8 percent of Americans selected gay or lesbian in a recent sample of 58,000 persons. Interestingly, the American public grossly overstates the percentage of people who are gay or Lesbian. In a 2015 Gallup poll, Americans believe that 23 percent of the population is gay or lesbian.[1] The number and percentage of transgendered people is understandably smaller. In 2016, transgenders accounted for 0.6 percent of the US population.[2] Put in relative language, that means 1 out of 167 persons in the US are transgender, or 1.4 million people. Interestingly, the District of Columbia had by the far the highest rate of transgender people at 2.8 percent. Even California was modest at 0.8 percent. North Dakota had the lowest percentage (0.3 percent), but over the border in South Dakota it was back at the national average. That simple variation seems odd to me.

Even if these numbers are small, they are sizeable and important from a research and public policy issue. It is always arguably how accurate data are on issues that are personal to people such as gender identity. Some people do not trust the government, let alone other surveyors, to protect information. The Census Bureau goes as far as carefully warning that members of the Department face prison and a $250,000 fine if they divulge any personal information from their surveys.

As more people want information on how people perceive themselves with regard to gender identity, the research community is similarly pushed to consider how best to both categorize the different identities and what this will mean for research. And while it may not seem like much to the non-researcher out there, it is a challenging issue for the research community.

Historically, and even currently in some cases, the term “sex” was used to discuss whether the person was a male or female. Now, more often than not, surveys use the term “gender” for the same purpose. For that reason, they have been fairly interchangeable in common use. In recent years, I argue that the term “sex” has been used more as a verb rather than a noun. That is, to describe the act rather than the gender.

Many of us see “gender” similarly, and the truth is that people really don’t like throwing the word “sex” around in society. As well, it is one of the reasons that half my readers won’t get this article because most IT systems have spam-blockers that do not like the term “sex” (I literally have re-drafted articles due to the use of that and other seemingly innocuous words, including that of “mortgage,” if you can believe). A recent article by a University of Victoria researcher argues that both “sex” and “gender” are societal social statuses. I disagree. In research, “sex” has been used to define the biological variances between people. As described in Social Problems: Continuity and Change, “Sex refers to the anatomical and other biological differences between females and males that are determined at the moment of conception and develop in the womb and throughout childhood and adolescence.”

As researchers, policymakers, and advocates, we want to know whether someone is male, female, or other, for biological reasons, as well as how they perceive themselves through gender identity. These are two separate issues. In most surveys, the gender question is offered only two responses: male and female. This becomes a conundrum for many people and some have argued that only having the two options is “ethically wrong.”[3] There is a third option, of course, in the form of “prefer not to say,” “other,” or “transgender.” Researchers typically do not like the “prefer not to say” option because it mucks up the analysis.

None of this deals with gender identities, of course, which is another complex but important issue due in part to the fluidity of the issue. Even recently, the term “gay” was widely used to describe homosexuals. LGB was introduced in the 1980s to group lesbian, gay, and bisexuals. A T was added in the 1990s for transgenders, and finally, “Q” was recently added for “Queer.” Still, you will often find the acronym LGBT used in many writings. “Q” has been controversial at best due to a historically-negative connotation of the term “queer” to disparage certain people. It is more than likely that our terminology will have many more iterations over the coming decades, impacting our ability to consider how best to use identities on surveys. Thus, perhaps the use of multiple questions may be good advice so that variations can be parsed out for future comparisons of today’s data versus tomorrow’s.

To give you an idea of how many identities there are, Tumblr lists 112 and keeps growing.[4] I won’t list them here (a previous draft did) because then every spam blocker would stop this article from going through. For a more thorough discussion of identities, click here.

In a 2018 study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the researchers found that there were a “number of obstacles to accurate collection of gender identities,” but that the information was deemed valuable to collect. One particular worry is the accuracy of responses from people, given that in US Census and Current Population Studies, typically one person from the household answers for the entire household. Thus, does that household member know exactly how the dependent or other person calls themselves? It sounds simple enough, but with so many categories, it is likely that mistakes would be made. Even in the BLS study, it is apparent that not everyone agreed on the definition of transgender and how it should be used. This becomes a problem when people within that community cannot come up with common terminology.

Even SurveyMonkey has written on this topic, claiming that it may be best to use several questions rather than one question to get at the issue of sexual and gender identities.

From an empirical point of view—and only that—building new and varied categories is always a bit of a pain for analysts. In the end, and usually due to the “N,” or number of those surveyed, categories get lumped together in order to gain any statistical significance. This doesn’t happen in something as large as the US Census, but it does in many other surveys. Thus, the breaking apart single categories into many categories can be problematic from a statistical perspective. For instance, we may want to ask about income by category in a survey, but if we divide income into too many levels, we may run into an analytical problem due to small cells. The same with race/ethnic groupings. The US Census categories include White, Black, and Hispanic/Latino, Asian, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders. And even on large, national surveys, we run into sample size issues which often impede us from conducting any heavy statistical lifting on the last two groups, much to chagrin of those who want to see those groups in the analysis. The same thing will happen as we expand our definitions and categories of sex and gender identities.

In March 2017, the Administration removed proposed questions on sexual orientation and gender identities from the upcoming 2020 Census. A few months later, HR 3273, the LGBT Data Inclusion Act,[5] was introduced into the US House of Representatives. This bill would require the identification and revision or inclusion of questions related to sexual orientation and gender identities on federal surveys, including the 2020 Census. The LGBTQ community has been strongly behind this bill, but it is not likely to make any headway through this Congress due to other looming issues.[6]

Other US Census Bureau surveys have stayed away from the issue. The American Community Survey, which is administered annually by the Bureau, currently uses the terms male and female with no other option and no reference to identity.[7] In the end, the 2020 Census will add a question about “same-sex” or “opposite-sex” marriage, but not include any questions about gender identity.[8]

Surveys by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a division of the US Department of Education, have also left things at male or female in the past. However, the upcoming administration of the Baccalaureate and Beyond (B&B) in 2018 will include the following questions:

What is your gender? Your gender is how you feel inside and can be the same or different from your biological or birth sex. 
(Please choose all that apply)
Transgender, male-to-female
Transgender, female-to-male
Genderqueer or gender nonconforming
Please describe
A different identity
Please describe

In addition, the B&B survey also asks, “What sex were you assigned at birth?” Thus, it gets at both issues of biological or birth sex and identity.

From a research point of view, we will have to keep flexible in how we deal with this issue, knowing that, for much of the time, we will be consolidating many variables due to our statistical significance issues. Thus, do not be surprised that on institutional and other smaller surveys that the number of variables analyzed is significantly reduced. Researchers may be able to tell you that X numbers of students selected X different gender identities boxes, but the statistical flooring of these questions will fall out due to significance.

Given that this is a complex issue, I am interested in your thoughts. Please comment accordingly.


I received information from a colleague at RTI, who provided these useful details (edited):

Often LGBTQ is combined altogether, where most of those populations are defined by sexuality, whereas transgender/gender non-conforming is about gender identity. Make a clear distinction between capturing other minority populations and how it relates to what we know about capturing gender identity in surveys, because there are separate methods to doing so (i.e., 2-step process for gender, whereas sexuality can be: preference, identification, behavior, etc.). Too often one may not realize that transgender identification is not about sexuality, and it would make the blog post stronger to have a clear justification for including those comparisons to the collection of data on sexual minority populations.   

-The two-step process of capturing gender identity is not mentioned explicitly, which is the method generally accepted in the field. Here is an assessment of different methods, that will also provide a great ref list:

-This is also the method utilized in B&B:08/18. Before collecting gender identification, respondents are first asked about biological sex. This allows researchers to make inferences about respondents whose gender does not align with their biological sex, regardless of self-reported gender identification. This is ideal given some of the consequences and considerations already mentioned in the blog post.

What sex were you assigned at birth (what the doctor put on your birth certificate)?

o   Male

o   Female









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In Need of Institutional Grit

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

To listen to today’s Swail Letter on your device, click on the podcast icon below.


Last week I wrote about the issues of college admissions, selectivity, and grit. I can’t seem to read anything lately without hearing more about grit. As mentioned, grit is a term coined, to a degree, by Angela Duckworth in her book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” The argument is that students with “grit” tend to succeed more than other students. However, the strength of the grit contention has been recently found to have limited inte’grit’y or empirical scrutiny. That is, it doesn’t hold up to the science. In the end, how does one measure grit as an issue that helps define the intellectual and social makeup of a person? Something that defines their resiliency and ability to start and finish? To put “all in?”


I don’t doubt that grit matters. It has for me and I’ve seen it as a major strength in others. When the chips are down, some of us have a unique ability to conjure up a special power that helps us persevere through challenging times or issues. Maybe all of us have this ability. But some people have more than others. We see it all the time around us and within us. Somehow, over a lifetime of creating the ethos of who we are, we develop a demeanor and efficacy about how we do things. Some people do more; others less. Some people work smarter; some less. In the end, we want people who are knowledgeable and have the ability to put their knowledge into action. We want gritty people, but not necessarily at the cost of losing the emotional intelligences that are the foundation of the soft skills so desired by employers, let alone friends and family.

Unfortunately, it seems the analytics of grit do not hold up well when measured against other admissions criteria, such as test scores and GPA. How we select students into selective colleges has long been an argument in the US and in selective institutions. The truth is simple: if I want to ensure my freshman class is going to graduate, I need to measure one thing: income. Sure, it sounds horrible, but income is the denominator for every variable calculation that we can bring to bear on this issue. What is the highest predictor of high school GPA? Income. What is the highest predictor of SAT score? Income. What is the highest predictor of quality of courses taken? Income.

This is all true. But it doesn’t seem fair, does it? And for this reason we look for alternative methods about how to decide on which students will populate our freshman classes. We want to level playing fields without being completely unfair against academically strong candidates: those who, for any other reason, would fill the limited spots without question.

So grit may matter, but I wish to turn this conversation around and talk about institutional grit rather than student grit.

If you talk to faculty members from time to time, there is a portion that believe that the success of students depends exclusively on the students themselves. If students simply did the work, they would complete and graduate. Of course, this resonates to many of us. Students must bring their knowledge to the forefront as well as their ability to grow and learn. Nonetheless, there is a major responsibility on behalf of the institution to ensure that students have the resources to succeed. In my Swail Geometric Framework for Student Retention, I posit that the success of any student requires the balance between the resources of that student in combination with those of the institution. Only when there is a balance—an equilibrium as I call it—does success occur. In golf we sometimes use the phrase ham and egg, which is a colloquialism that means when one partner plays poorly on a hole, the other plays well, providing a balance that can lead to overall success. In education, we can use the same analogy such that where the student has a weakness or need, the institution has the resources to help the student overcome this deficiency. These are the safety nets that institutions must provide to help students.

When I travel to institutions and talk with faculty, staff, and administrators, I often remind the group that upon accepting a student into their institution, they have, for all effective purposes, entered a moral and ethical agreement to do whatever the institution can to support the student to reach his or her educational goals. Sometimes I receive pushback from faculty members who says they can’t possibly work with students on an individual basis to ensure success, but I counter quickly: if we can figure ways to collect money from students and families on an individual basis, surely we can figure out how to provide individual, person-to-person support services as well. It is, ultimately, our primary responsibility.

Thus, institutions need to use their “grit” to ensure success for students. This type of grit comes in the form of invasive services, including advising and tutoring, to name only two. The institution must be particular astute in recognizing when students are teetering and in danger of dropping out, or, perhaps just as importantly, when they are staying in but earning poor grades or failing.

Grit, as stated, is something that is honed over time, just as humor and compassion are cultivated over a lifetime. Institutions need to cultivate their culture of support and caring over generations of faculty, staff, and students. But it has to start somewhere and with someone. We want institutions to have high expectations of their students and pull out all the stops to help along the way.

I often close my keynotes and workshops by saying that we cannot save all students from themselves. Some students just aren’t going to persist and graduate, no matter what we do. However, we can absolutely do more to help our students succeed with a reasonable expectation of effort from everyone who works with us. We all need a little grit.


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College Admissions, Selectivity, and Grit

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

In 2013, Angela Duckworth became a bit of a phenomenon for her book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” She toured the talk shows and became the flag-bearer for showcasing that individual passion had much more to do with future ability than purely academics. Five years later, there are many critics of the “grit” analogy. Scientific observations have shown that grit has a limited and “weak” impact on future success.[1]

For the past 30 years, there has been a push for non-cognitive factors for student success. I have written and spoken prominently on the balance between academic data and non-cognitive and social attributes for students in the Geometric Framework for Student Retention. William Sedlacek of the University of Maryland was one of the first researchers who focused on non-cognitive variables in predicting future success for non-traditional students. His basic point remains that grades and academic testing data are not, in isolation, an appropriate way to measure the future success of students. Thus, the game is about finding variables beyond traditional test scores to provide other indicators of success. Duckworth’s research on grit and other variables was largely based on this believe in not over relying on traditional measures of academic achievement and potential.

In the end, we always must warn that these issues are mostly indicators of interest for selective institutions of higher education, which is attributed to less than half of the students who begin their college experience each fall. However, if we focus exclusively on the four-year level, then selectivity rises to 81 percent of students who attend institutions that are at least marginally selective. It can be argued that only the very selective institutions focus discretely on these numbers, but certainly the moderately selective schools do, as well.

As illustrated in the graphic below, 26 percent of public four-year students attend very selective students as compared to 41 percent of students at private, not-for-profit four-year institutions. In fact, only five percent of students at the private level attend open admissions institutions compared to 18 percent at publics. But the selectivity of four-year institutions has increased over the years. Once thought of primarily a private-institution issue, sheer demand has forced public institutions to be much more selective in admitting students, especially at land grant institutions.

Exhibit 1. Selectivity of US Institutions of Higher Education, by Control and Level, 2011-12

180606 BPS Selectivity

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011-12 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, First Follow-up (BPS:12/14). Data downloaded and analyzed by the Educational Policy Institute, June 6, 2018). 

But measuring non-cognitive indicators is difficult. Perhaps tricky is a better term. Just as with academic measures, such as the ACT and SAT tests, there are issues of bias and validity with any type of test. The fact that the two measures illustrated—the ACT and SAT—with over a century of research and development by arguably the best psychometricians in the world, still has bias and validity issues should set this in perspective: if these tests still bear weight of internal and external validity, then what about these other non-cognitive tests and measures that have not nearly had the same research and development? Would they be more biased and less conclusive? The answer is yes, most certainly.

The ability for admissions personal at institutions who admit most of their applicants is not terribly difficult. But as the institution becomes more selective, the process gets much more complex and difficult. Focusing on the most selective institutions, many of which accept less than 15 percent of their applicants (e.g., Stanford (5.1 percent), Harvard (6 percent), Princeton (7.4 percent), etc.), these institutions need a process for sifting out students who are largely very talented. For instance, only 1 percent of students who take the SAT earn a perfect 1600, and only 5 percent score over 1400.[2] Yet many of these top schools have hundreds of students who apply for admission with perfect or near-perfect test scores.

To put this in perspective, Stanford University had 44,073 applicants in 2017, of which 2,085 were admitted and 1,708 enrolled. The average SAT for reading and writing was between 690 and 760 and average math was 700-780 and the average ACT score fell between 32 and 35. Thus, almost everyone who applied to Stanford had an exceptionally high test score. Harvard has over 200 students applying each fall with perfect SAT scores.[3] UC Berkeley received over 89,000 applicants plus another 19,000 transfer applicants in fall 2017, with an average SAT of 1337 and 29 ACT, with over 10,000 students above 1400. That translates to 108,000 highly-qualified applications for 14,000 freshman positions.

With so many applicants and so few spaces, relatively speaking, how can these institutions possibly decide who gets in or not? Non-cognitive testing? Not likely. It has been noted that at some point, once you get into the highest 10 percent of test scores, the cease to matter at these institutions.

Most institutions say that the GPA and the test score are useful but not important indicators of selection. Other factors, such as academic coursework (read: rigor), extracurriculars, essays, recommendations, and the “interview” are also considered. But let’s face it: the extra curriculars, essays, and recommendations are all fodder: they will all be good. The interview is important, but how many of the 108,000 applying to UC Berkeley get the chance to interview? In the end, the prime factor that still must be addressed is academic ability. The standardized test score and course rigor are the two items that should matter most in admissions, I am afraid to say. GPA is not useful in any statistical matter because of the rampant grade inflation over the decades. The average GPA at Berkeley is 4.10. So big deal. What matters is how students score on a standardized test and what courses they completed at these highly-selective institutions.

This isn’t the message a lot of people want to hear, but in selective institutions, this is the way it is and the way it should be. For the other institutions—the moderately and minimally selective—admissions processes are even more challenging because the rigor of students is still high even if downgraded from the top tier. And there are more of them. Hundreds of thousands of students who fit a decent test score and academics trying to get into these hundreds of institutions. Now we get into a number issue. Simply put, addressing a fair admissions strategy with so many applicants. In the end, the number has to rule because everything else would seemingly be unfair. We have arguments when legacies get into schools in front of others; when sports and other factors are determined; and, of course, when race/ethnicity is considered, attested by the numerous court cases over the decades by various plaintiffs who have mostly argued that affirmative action should not be the law of admissions.

Thus, in the end, grit is a wonderful four-letter word that doesn’t necessarily matter that much unless you believe that grit is what gets you good test scores and results in the completion of high-level course work in high school. Otherwise, what is grit really measuring? Perseverance? I’d say getting top test scores and taking the right courses also indicates perseverance. And perhaps preference, opportunity, and social status, with no argument.

The argument against, of course, is that not all students are in a position where they can take and complete high-level courses due in large part to the dismal teaching and learning environment where they are raised. This is true. But can we really dismiss the actual academic performance of the top tier students for top-tier institutions? This isn’t an anti-affirmative action rant. Not at all. But if we really want to level the playing fields at the college level, we need to level the education at the K12 level first.

To do this, we have to convince policymakers to invest heavily into public schools—not charter schools—and change how we educate students, especially those who do not typically go to college or who go and do not succeed. I’m talking low-income, first generation, and students of color. The best affirmative action we can do is to change the process of teaching and learning. Sure, we can increase the expectations and the requirements for high school graduation, but we’ve done that before with dreadful outcomes. You can only change those expectations once you retool the system. This is not a simple effort, of course. We’ve been retooling for decades. We have lived through open space schools, gender-only schools, and even playing with the curriculum, as we did with Algebra and geometry in the EQUITY 2000 project when I worked at the College Board. That didn’t really work, either, because the school districts failed to provide the necessary supports for students to succeed after years and years of bad mathematics instruction. In the age of educational technologies, we still have failed to largely harness their potential for altering the teaching and learning environment, arguably because we’ve only placed those systems on top of traditional curriculum and standard maps.

The challenge, of course, is that we do not create an equitable system over night, and perhaps, never. And this will remain a long, frustrating issue for higher education: how do we equitably admit students to our selective institutions?

It will still come down to test scores. That is the truest form of grit we have.

[1] Credé, M., Tynan, M. C., & Harms, P. D. (2017). Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(3).



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Beware the Rhetoric About the Over Importance of a BA

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

An article posted yesterday in MarketWatch trumpeted that 9 out of 10 new jobs are going to those with a college degree. The article uses data from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

It is important to note that these data—while accurate—are also cherry picked from a very specific time period that overemphasizes the importance of a college degree in today’s economy. The article also notes that employers will “demand” that replacements for those leaving the workforce (e.g., Baby Boomers) will be better trained rather than “let them learn on the job.” But the reality is that there is enough of a glut of BA earners that employers simply filter out everyone else.

We can all safely assume that someone with a four-year degree has more knowledge and expertise than someone with a two-year degree, and that those individuals have more knowledge and expertise than those with only a high school degree. And so on. But how much of that is based on maturation rather than what they have learned? I hear often in the workforce that those with associate degrees are more employable, with respect to skills and work ready, than BAs, depending on the job. As well, how more prepared are BA grads due to age maturation rather than what they have learned? I can argue both sides of the point, but regardless, we need to hear more arguments.


Our employers have made the college degree a self-fulfilling prophecy by filtering out non-BAs for certain jobs that once went to those with less than a BA and, in some cases, high school graduates. Those who have recently looked at or indeed or any of the other job walls on the internet will understand this clearly: the bot systems are preferential to those with higher degrees. Thus, if you do not have a higher degree, your application may not get considered or even accepted for a position. In addition, these systems are also preferential to those who will accept a lower salary by asking what salary a prospective employee would accept, thus lowering the cost to employers. This economy, where the competition for decent employment is remarkably high, is forcing graduates to reduce their expected wage simply to get hired.

Building an entire economy based on the principle that the BA is a holy grail is dangerous because it increases the debt burdens of individuals and parents. Much of the price tag of college is paid for by student and PLUS loans, as well as disbursements from retirement funds for those who have them. Data illustrate that graduates are more likely to delay retirement and the purchase of a house than ever before, and, according to CNN Money, the rising cost of college will result in “weaker spending and wealth accumulation among young consumers in the years to come.”[1]

In the end, our economy is pushing individuals and families towards debt levels that this nation has never seen before. According to the other EPI, the Economic Policy Institute, half of all workers have no retirement savings at all.[2] In fact, those workers between the ages of 21 and 37 are more likely not to have retirement funds. It is true that those with a college degree are more likely to have retirement funds than others, but that is largely due to the fact that the employers who hire those people are more likely to have retirement plans available than other companies. It isn’t because of the BAs… it is because of the type of company. Those who hire skilled workers, for instance, are less likely to have retirement plans in place, especially if they have 50 or less workers on staff, freeing them from certain federal requirements, including participation in Obamacare.

In January of this year, I posted BLS data in The Swail Letter that accurately illustrated where the growth of US jobs will be in the next decade. Of the top occupations, by number of jobs, none of the top 10 will require a postsecondary degree or credential (see below). That stated, many of those jobs will go to those with BAs and other credentials simply because employers will filter for those people. Food prep, retail sales, cashiers—many will have an earned associates or bachelors degree. The US will have the most well-educated service workers with the highest level of debt this world has ever seen. And while the economy is humming along at record levels with respect to employment rates, there are also more people who are part time and without benefits than at any other time in history.

What does this mean for the future? It is always difficult to predict, but I foresee an economy crash in the next decade that could rival the Great Recession of 2007 once current fiscal policies come home to roost.[1] The cost of the ill-advised tax cuts, which produced the largest deficit in US history, will hit the economy hard when our loans are called in. The reduction of fiscal protections via the weakening of Dodd Frank, as well as the increasing cost of health care, will also have severe implications on the earning and retirement, if not total welfare, of all Americans, including those with college degrees. Our elderly will need help, both physical and fiscal, beyond anything we have ever seen as this nation continues to grow grayer.

Getting a college degree is a good thing. Please do not misinterpret my critique. But it can’t be the only thing that makes our economy tick or will go upside down very quickly. Rhetoric overstating the importance of a college degree in lieu of other important credentials in the workforce isn’t extraordinarily helpful.





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New World Reputation Rankings Unleashed

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

The UK-based Times Higher Education (THE) released their 2018 World Reputation Rankings today. This is a different ranking from THE’s World University Rankings, as the reputation piece focuses on an invitational-only survey of scholars from various universities around the world.

Harvard University is the number one school, so it was given a score of 100 from which every other institution is then placed in rank below that number. THE only ranked the first 50 due to the fact that the increments between institutions were simply so small that determining who was 59 versus 60 became pointless. Critics could argue that the entire endeavor is pointless, but it at least gives us an indicator of how scholars perceive the relative value of institutions. In some ways, this reputation piece is more interesting that the world rankings in the fall, as there is more to argue in how they determine non-reputation rankings. Here it is quite simple: the rankings are all about perceptions, for better and worse. And that is all they are.

With Harvard at the top looking down, we find that the top 10 is mostly an American listing, with Cambridge and Oxford clawing some respectability for the UK. Joining Harvard, in order, are MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, Yale, UCLA, and University of Chicago. Knowing that “10s” are arbitrary at best, the next two on the list are also from the US: Cal Tech and Columbia University. US-based colleges account for 27 of the top 50 slots and 44 of the top 105. That last number may seem a bit odd, but 105 is the THE cut for the previously mentioned reason: it was difficult to cut at 100 when the next 5 institutions were at the same level as the 100th. So it makes sense, even if it messes with our conditioned framework of statistics a wee bit.

As we can see from the graphic below, only a few countries were able to make a meaningful strike in this reputation survey. The UK had the second most institutions in the top 105 with 9, followed by China and Germany (6), Japan and the Netherlands (5), France (4), Canada, Hong Kong, and South Korea (3), and 14 others to make up the list.

180530 Swail Letter

SOURCE: THE World Reputational Rankings. Graphic by EPI. 

In the end, what does all this information mean? Not much, to be fair. But it is interesting to see how the world perceives the best colleges in the world, and it isn’t much of a surprise that the US continues to wield significant notoriety in higher education. Without a full accounting, there is little doubt that the research funds that pour into the top 44 US institutions on this list likely account for the next 200 institutions put together. That is a very unofficial estimate, of course, but it is worth understanding how big the research emphasis is at these colleges. To give example, Johns Hopkins received almost $2 billion in funding from the federal government alone in 2017, and the University of Washington received $909 million. In total, 32 of the US institutions on this list had R&D budgets in excess of $28 billion in 2017. We were unable to find data from 12 additional US institutions on the list, but let us assume that if we did the aggregate would total somewhere between $35 and 40 billion in R&D funds. A startling amount of funds at the university level. Just as an aside, while the private institutions are very well known, 61 percent (or 27) of the US institutions in the rankings are publicly-controlled and account for over half the funding just described.

The funding, in large part, is a main part of the reputational piece of the rankings. Scholars from around the world publish and conduct research and read pieces by other scholars from these top institutions on a regular basis, thus their attitude is biased on the productivity of these universities in large part. The reputation is well earned and well paid for.

As time goes on, expect to see more international universities break this list, but it will take a long, long time. The efforts of the Saudis, Indians, Chinese, and others will take decades if not centuries of continued and large research investment to match what has been going on in the US for well over a century.

Ranking Institution Country
1 Harvard University USA
2 Massachusetts Institute of Technology USA
3 Stanford University USA
4 University of Cambridge UK
5 University of Oxford UK
6 University of California, Berkeley USA
7 Princeton University USA
8 Yale University USA
9 University of California, Los Angeles USA
9 University of Chicago USA
11 California Institute of Technology USA
12 Columbia University USA
13 The University of Tokyo Japan
14 Tsinghua University China
15 University of Michigan USA
16 University of Pennsylvania USA
17 Peking University China
18 Cornell University USA
20 Imperial College London UK
21 Johns Hopkins University USA
22 ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich Switzerland
22 University of Toronto Canada
24 National University of Singapore Singapore
25 London School of Economics and Political Science UK
26 New York University USA
27 Kyoto University Japan
28 University of Washington USA
29 Duke University USA
30 Carnegie Mellon University USA
31 University of California, San Diego USA
32 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign USA
33 Lomonosov Moscow State University Russia
33 University of Wisconsin-Madison USA
35 University of Edinburgh UK
36 University of Texas at Austin USA
37 Northwestern University USA
38 University of British Columbia Canada
39 Paris Sciences & Lettres – PSL University France
40 University of Hong Kong Hong Kong
41 McGill University Canada
42 King’s College London UK
43 École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne France
44 University of California, San Francisco USA
44 Georgia Institute of Technology USA
46 Seoul National University South Korea
47 University of California, Davis USA
47 University of Melbourne Australia
49 LMU Munich Germany
50 Pennsylvania State University USA
51-60 Delft University of Technology Netherlands
51-60 KU Leuven Belgium
51-60 Heidelberg University Germany
51-60 University of Manchester UK
51-60 University of Minnesota USA
51-60 Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Singapore
51-60 National Taiwan University Taiwan
51-60 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill USA
51-60 Purdue University USA
51-60 Sorbonne University France
61-70 University of Amsterdam Netherlands
61-70 Australian National University Australia
61-70 University of California, Santa Barbara USA
61-70 Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Hong Kong
61-70 Humboldt University of Berlin Germany
61-70 Karolinska Institute Sweden
61-70 Michigan State University USA
61-70 Ohio State University USA
61-70 University of Southern California USA
61-70 Technical University of Munich Germany
71-80 Brown University USA
71-80 Chinese University of Hong Kong Hong Kong
71-80 Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) South Korea
71-80 Leiden University Netherlands
71-80 University of Maryland, College Park USA
71-80 Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) South Korea
71-80 University of Sydney Australia
71-80 Texas A&M University USA
71-80 Tokyo Institute of Technology Japan
71-80 Zhejiang University China
81-90 Arizona State University USA
81-90 Free University of Berlin Germany
81-90 Fudan University China
81-90 Indiana University USA
81-90 Osaka University Japan
81-90 University of Science and Technology of China China
81-90 Shanghai Jiao Tong University China
81-90 Tohoku University Japan
81-90 Utrecht University Netherlands
81-90 University of Warwick UK
81-90 Washington University in St Louis USA
91-100 Boston University USA
91-100 University of Colorado Boulder USA
91-100 University of Copenhagen Denmark
91-100 École Polytechnique France
91-100 Hebrew University of Jerusalem Israel
91-100 University of Helsinki Finland
91-100 Indian Institute of Science India
91-100 Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology Russia
91-100 University of Pittsburgh USA
91-100 Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey USA
91-100 RWTH Aachen University Germany
91-100 Uppsala University Sweden
91-100 Wageningen University & Research Netherlands
91-100 University of Zurich Switzerland

SOURCE: THE World University Rankings.


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The New Dropout Crisis? Not so New

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

The New York Times David Leonhardt, one of the few journalists that I read on a daily basis, published an article this morning on the “new dropout crisis.” The crisis, in this case, is that the national college dropout rate has eclipsed the national high school dropout rate. While I am glad to see the focus on an area that I have studied for over two decades, I do take some issue with this comparison. To begin, it is very true: we have done an extraordinarily poor job in higher education to graduate the majority of our students. Half of students who begin at college of any kind this fall will not earn a degree within six years. That includes two-year and four-year students attending public and private institutions. The causes for this are complex, but we can boil it down to several things, including the arguable beginning of this trend with the Civil Rights Act of 1965 as well as the large subsidies to higher education which helped created the massification (a real word in higher education policy studies) of the system. There are other issues, but these are two very big pieces.


I call the comparison of the two dropout rates a false positive because this has been the case for a long, long time. The data used by Leonhardt, created by Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners, is seemingly incorrect to me[1]. First, it uses IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) data to create the rate, which probably is not the best data source for comparison as it is self-reported by the institution and IPEDS is known to be suspect. Not a bad choice, but perhaps not the best. A superior source may be the US Department of Education’s NPSAS (National Postsecondary Student Aid Study), which I use below. NPSAS is a specially-designed, randomly sampled database from across the country.

Another factor, of course, is the definition of dropout. Dropout means various things, and in higher education we must talk about dropout in the context of stopouts: those students who drop but come back. Leonhardt’s conclusion is correct, of course. Dropouts in higher education is a serious issue and too many students who begin a degree or certificate program will not succeed, typically carrying a financial debt for a piece of parchment they never received. This is serious stuff.

Where the high school dropout rate comes from I am even less sure, because the status dropout rate of 16-to-24-year-olds is only 5.9 percent according to the US Department of Education[2]. So, I don’t trust the numbers from Bellwether to any degree.

What is true is that dropout in higher education has—for much longer than the NYTimes and Bellwether suggest—been a critical problem in our education system. But the reasons for the dropout in postsecondary education is a much different animal than in secondary education. First and foremost, higher education is not a compulsory requirement as is K-12. By law, most youth must go to school until they are at least 16-years of age, and many states have passed laws to increase that age to 17 or 18. In college, students make their own choice to enroll and to dropout. We know the issue is much muddier than this, but people still have choice. Second, there are much different issues associated with persistence in higher education than in persistence in high school. For almost all students, if you go to high school, you will complete high school. The academics rarely get in the way, but the social issues do. People do not typically dropout because they don’t like or can’t do algebra. They dropout because they don’t like school, would rather work, and take really bad advice from people who are ill-equipped to give it to them. People dropout out primary for bad reasons, not academic reasons. I’m a math guy: I can teach algebra to anyone. Anyone! Trigonometry? Um. Less so, which begs the question why we require all students to learn trig anyway (arguably a sidebar conversation for another time). High school, by definition via its graduation requirements, is designed to succeed via minimum levels and expectations. It’s a pretty low bar to graduate from high school, especially in a non-agrarian society.

In higher education, though, there are many factors that impact the ability of students to persist and graduate. First, many students who leave are simply not adequately prepared to be admitted—let alone graduate—from college. Thus, some high school graduates enter higher education do so with very limited academic wherewithal to succeed. It should be no surprise when many of these students stop showing up. If anyone wants to know what the number one indicator of college success is, guess what? It isn’t someone’s race/ethnicity, income, or education legacy. It isn’t where they come from, per se. It isn’t even their intellect or cognitive ability, necessarily (although it can be). Ultimately, the biggest predictor of postsecondary success is the academic rigor of their prior education, as prominently noted by US Department of Education Analyst Clifford Adelman in his “Answers in the Toolbox” transcript study. Cliff, one of the best policy analysts around, passed away only a few weeks ago.

Another looming issue for students is ability to pay. That doesn’t happen in high school. Even with large public and private subsidies, depending on the college one chooses, there is still a high price to pay. Interestingly enough, the pricing for low-income students is better than many people think it is, due primarily to Pell and institutional grants provided to people betow about 150 percent of the poverty level. In most cases, the expected family contribution (EFC) for students falls between $12,000 and $17,000 a year at the four-year level (see below). For low-income students, this amount is actually quite a bit lower, averaging about $3,000 or less per year. Important to note, of course, is that many low-income students who do dropout do so because the unanticipated costs of college that is not covered by grants, such as travel, health care (copays), drugs (not that type!), and even food. The unexpected items push them over the edge and they leave.


SOURCE: US Department of Education, National Postsecondary Education Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16). Data collected and analyzed using PowerStats, W. Swail, May 25, 2018. 

One other note in the NYTimes piece. Leonhardt makes the standard point that the returns to a higher education are large. He’s right. But the echo of this statement gets very stale because it creates a false understanding of why there is an ROI gap. But the returns are declining while graduate (and dropout) debt is increasing. In parallel, the cost of an education is also increasing. It should be noted by readers that one of the reasons that there is such a earnings gap between high school graduates and college graduates is that employers aren’t hiring high school students anymore. And they do so because they can hire BA and other graduates for work that requires nothing more than the skillset learned in secondary school. They could hire high school graduates, but they don’t. As I have written extensively about before, employers use the BA as a filter, without any real thought about the skillsets that they are trying to attract. The assumption is simple: if you bothered to go to college and you were able enough to navigate the system and earn a degree, you can probably do something positive for me. There is nothing wrong with that assumption, because it carries water. But this belief has also propelled the value of college degrees—in particular the bachelor’s degree—to heights that are absurd. About 25 percent of our population has a BA degree and that percent will surely increase in the next quarter century. But 25 percent of the jobs in the US do not require a BA degree. Check my stats from the Bureau of Labor (link above). We simply do not need that many people with BAs. Having one is a good thing. But having too many is a societal problem, too. Ask the BAs who can’t find a steady job or can’t get one that has anything to do with their very expensive (always consider the opportunity cost of not working for 4-6 years) degree. There absolutely should be some level of rationing, by degree and program, in the US, so that we do not overproduce certain graduates. But doing so is a third-rail issue. Who is going to make that decision in America? The Death Panel?

As always, I enjoy comments on these pieces and put them out there for interesting dialogue. I also strongly encourage you to sign up for David Leonhardt’s daily opinion pieces. Always great stuff. And sign up for The Swail Letter, too.

Have a great weekend.


[1] “Seemingly,” because I cannot reproduce the data that is used in the chart. Thus, I am not sure which data sources they actually used, but given that I know most of the data sources available, I have my doubts about the legitimacy of these comparisons.


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Declining Enrollments? Not Such a Big Deal

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

A new report released yesterday by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) reported that undergraduate enrollments were down 1.3 percent from the previous year, equivalent to 231,674 students from the previous spring. The biggest losses were in the two-year public sector, which accounted for over half of the losses (53 percent; 107,393), and the four-year, for-profit sector (33 percent; 67,637). The losses at the four-year public and private non-profit sectors were negligible.

A similar reporting was noted by the NSC in fall 2017, a more traditional measure of postsecondary participation compared with the spring semester. In that NSC report, total enrollment declined 1.0 percent, or 199,179 students. As with the spring 2018 report, about half of the decline was in the two-year public sector and 36 percent in the four-year for-profit sector, with negligible declines in the others.

What does this mean and why does it matter? I ask because people seem to be getting in a tizzy over these reports. Obviously, colleges worry about declining enrollments because it impacts their financial forecasting. For instance, 50 students may not sound like many, but if a private institution loses that many students from one fall to another, the financial impact of those losses could add up to $1.5 million pretty quickly, depending on the institution. And what is the impact of $1.5 million? Depending on the institution, $1.5 million could translate to 20-25 FTE employees. These issues are nightmares for business officers and executives, let alone academic deans.

Although these NSC data are interesting, the overall issue is relatively insignificant in the long-term. In preparation for this Swail Letter, I did a quick check on CDC birth records and the population trend of 18-24-year-olds in the US. There is no serious concern for enrollment worries as they should remain relatively stable over the next decade. My bet is that they will likely increase over that period of time with the aid of a rebounding of the two-year and for-profit sectors.

Still, the question remains: if things are so stable, why are the numbers down? First, let’s put this in perspective: we are talking about a 1.0 to 1.3 percent change, and given the nature of enrollments and the sheer size of the overall student population, these are data “blips.” Numbers vacillate for a lot of reasons, and as some people have noted about this new report, the issues are also about geography and are not steady across the country. Our concern should be focused on when blips turn to trends, and that isn’t happening at this time (ask me next year). Thus, the answer to the question of why this is happening is actually quite simple: it’s the economy.

Every higher education policy analyst understands that when the economy is good, enrollments, beyond the factors of demographics, decline. Why? People are employed and can find jobs. A certain bubble of the population will tend toward postsecondary education and training when the economy is bad and tend toward employment when it is good. Right now, with the economy humming at an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, they are trending towards work. This percentage rate, by the way, is considered “full employment” by economists. As the President would like everyone to acknowledge, the unemployment rate has continued a downward slide since he was in office. And he’s right; it clearly has. Of course, the rate has been on a downward slide since the first year of the Obama Presidency, so one might choose words and data carefully given the nature of the economy versus the power of the office. The graphic below illustrates the trends in long-term unemployment by Administration, first with the Bush Administration, followed by Obama, and then Trump.

Table 1. Number of people in the United States who were unemployed for 27 weeks and over, 2008 to 2018 (in thousands)


SOURCE: Graphic by the Educational Policy Institute. 

Bubble students take quick opportunities in the work force because they can earn money. Many, especially at the two-year level, will choose to leave higher education (or not enroll) and re-enter the workforce because they are employable due to a strong economy. This perspective would also make sense in the for-profit sector, which also enrolls people who are on the bubble of employment.

Interestingly, the NSC also reported that the number of adult students (above 24-years of age) was also down. The argument above also would forecast this happening, too.

In the end, let’s keep a positive outlook. The economy is good. People are working, albeit we know that the people who are working and receiving benefits is a grave concern in the US. Take a quick look at the graphic below. The red dots and lines represent part-time workers in the 25-54 age range and the blue the full-time workers. The combination of the Great Recession and the introduction of Obamacare spiked the number of workers who moved from full-time to a part-time status, in large part because the economy was unsettled as well as employers knee-jerk reaction to reduce employee hours so they wouldn’t have to provide health care as a benefit. Only now do we see that the economy is strong enough that the trend is reverting back to pre-Great Recession numbers. That is a good thing.

Table 2. Part-time versus full-time employment ratios between 2007 to 2018 (April) for workers between the ages of 25 and 54.

second chart.jpeg


Declining enrollments are always a challenge for colleges and policymakers. But, ultimately, we must remember what we are here for, and that is to provide an education for those who desire and need it. Our job is not to admit people who actually want to be doing something else and we shouldn’t promote something behind the curtain when some potential clients already know what they want to do and how to get it. If and when those people are ready, we will be there for them. But if they want to work, that’s a good thing for them and the nation as a whole.

For right now, the data presented suggest that the issue of declining enrollments is much ado about nothing.

180402 Swail Speaking Ad2

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Cliff Notes

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

Cliff Adelman passed away last week. To the uninitiated, Cliff was arguably the best data analyst on student issues that this world has ever seen. This is not an overstatement nor hyperbole. I’ve met most of them around the world at some point and he was leaps above any of them. If you don’t know Cliff, you know his data. His work was that omnipresent in the education arena.

Cliff was important to many of us data wonks. More than anything, he taught me what stories could be told from a bag full of data. He played Jeopardy with data (literally). He spoke of the “toolbox” and how students “swirled” and how business falsely used the BA as a filter, something I talk about to this day.


What separated Cliff from everyone else was his devotion to the data. He knew “the data,” of course. Perhaps he knew data more than some people. I’m not sure. I spent time with Cliff at countless conferences and meetings, and after a few beverages, he would be head back to his room and run more numbers for the next day. As others knew greatly, he was difficult to argue with—even if you were pretty sure you were right—because he had such a command with the data that you figured he had something on you. And he was confident, which totally made you feel you were doomed. Cliff and I were pretty much always on the same side of the argument, so it was never an issue that I can remember between us. He was on the students’ side. Cliff used data to tell stories of students in a hope to influence public policy and the “business” of higher education. In “Answers in the Tool Box,” his thematic piece from 1999 using data from the High School and Beyond (HS&B) database, he let us know that what mattered most with regard to higher education access and success, more than anything else, was the rigor of prior learning: enrolling and excelling in the most challenging courses during high school paved the way to future success, regardless of race/ethnicity or income. That was something that might have been inferred before, but these data, based on transcript data that he fought long and hard for at ED, told us definitively.

In 1988, not so long ago, Larry Gladieux and I had the privilege of having Cliff spend six months with us at the College Board for an Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) assignment. We were all excited about it, and it is where he did most of the work on “Toolbox.” He also laid the groundwork for his analysis of job ads where he noted the discrepancy between the skills employers desired and the inflated level of education they required. We were all excited to have Cliff hang out with us for half a year. In reflection, however, we never really saw Cliff very much. He was always out talking to be people or doing his analysis. That, again, was Cliff. He did his work.

Many of us spoke on panels with Cliff throughout our careers. If you saw Cliff in the audience at a session, there was a question coming. And it would be a short question led by a five-minute oratorio building the foundation for the question. And if the receiver of the question wasn’t listening with intense focus, he or she was dust. Cliff took no prisoners. He wasn’t rude about it, but he would be all over someone if they gave an answer that had no credence in it from an empirical standpoint. Numbers rule (as they should), anecdote does not. But as someone said this week on Facebook, we all learned to speak before Cliff, not after him. This, of course, had a double-edged sword. If you went before Cliff, he could critique your analysis live before he even started talking about his content. If you went after, your 20-minute presentation was squashed to three due to a bit of “overtime” on his part. Cliff could talk. And talk.

When changes happened at the College Board back in 2000 in the form of Gaston Caperton, the former West Virginia governor who became the CEO at the Board that year, a bunch of us were suddenly unemployed. When the news hit the wire back in late January 2000, Cliff immediately had me meet with his wife, Nancy, over the bridge in Rosslyn at SRI International. She also was an education researcher and she hired me on the spot. So, I owe them both personally and professionally for the opportunity and don’t think I ever gave them the proper “thank you” for that. Thank You. Both.

My first boss back in Winnipeg hired me as a teacher because I was a musician. He hired almost all musicians for “shop” teachers because, as he said, “Musicians were mathematicians.” There was a connection between the music and the technical. This perfectly describes Cliff, too. He was an excellent piano player and he loved to play. He would bring his folder of music to conferences and, if there was a piano, it was to be played. As a piano player myself, I loved this about Cliff. I remember playing the grand at the San Diego Hilton at the very end of ConnectED 2000 when people were filing out, and Cliff gave me a wink. A page from his catalogue.

There is much more to tell, but this was difficult enough to write with all the “humidity” around here. I will miss Cliff. We all will, even if you never knew him. #cancersucks.



Thanks to Nick and the rest of the Adelmans for putting up the wonderful Facebook celebration. Many of us never knew Cliff had dark hair. Or the Speedos. 

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