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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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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