The Hardest Decision for Student Success: Hiring the Right President

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

Many of us that study and work in the student retention field understand how complex and challenging it can be. The work involved in changing schools, environments, and cultures to improve student success in higher education can be daunting.

For institutional leadership that have to deal with state and federal guidelines, organizational budgets, human resources, and fundraising, student success can get lost in the shuffle. And when it is found, the issue can be, “what do we do?”


The hardest decision that any president, chancellor, or provost has to make is this regarding student success is this: deciding to do everything they can to make a difference. I have seen, first hand, what happens at institutions when they tinker with student success. A little program here; an FTE position focused on retention there; something that looks good but does remarkably little. These can be fine things, but they don’t move the needle of student success. The only thing that changes performance and behavior is an institutional-wide focus on student success, from the top down and the bottom up. I have yet to see it work any other way. And, unfortunately, many of these efforts seem to revolve around a particular person—leader—at campus. And when that person goes, so does the focus.

It is interesting to read job requirements in position postings for presidential openings at four-year institutions in particular. They talk so much about student success, but they want people who are experts in finance and business. They want people who “know people.” In other words, the institutions and their boards talk the talk but rarely walk the walk. They seldom hire the type of people that will focus on improving their institution via student success. Who do they hire? People who can increase the endowment. And who these leaders typically hire? People who can help them increase the endowment! I make some fun of this, but it is largely true.

I have no institutional measures of leadership, but it seems remarkable how many presidents appear to be lost in their job. Some, of course, were hired because they did something extraordinarily well which put them in line for a position of this magnitude. Many others are there because they climbed the administrative ladder. They paid the price by time and position. And others, of course, are simply well positioned, politically and financially. I would argue that not many presidents are hired because of their work, focus, and knowledge on student and institutional success. And not to simply focus on politicians, but look how many politicians have become college presidents. It has seemingly become a rite of passage for those who have been “retired” from politics by the democracy. Mitch Daniels, David Boren, Donna Shalala, Janet Napolitano, Robert Gates, Erskine Bowles, and Bob Kerrey are among the high-profile politicians who have served or currently serve as college presidents. It is argued that many of them did or are doing a good job in their positions.

However, there can be a danger when we want to improve education for students on one hand and hire powerful, well-known people who may lack the appreciation for the plight of the average student. This morning I read a Washington Post OpEd how education is littered by rich people trying to do good but not having a real handle on it. I will never decry our affluent from pouring their money into social work, such as education. But it becomes a different matter when someone without a clear understanding and appreciation for the academy starts mucking up the waters. In particular, the OpEd focuses on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has spent much of her life and money focused on privatizing and chartering schools in Michigan, a state with a tremendously poor track record in education. This is the state that decided to fund education through sales tax rather than property tax back in 1993. (As an aside, the Michigan State Senate passed the law to repeal the use of property taxes to fund public education that year without even having a replacement for it. Sound familiar?). He also pushed through charter school legislation as governor.

And, as I digress, the guy who led that fight was Governor John Engler. Guess what John does now? He is the interim President of Michigan State University. Last fall, Betsy DeVos named him chair of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. NAEP, AKA “The Nation’s Report Card,” is a big deal, and being chair of NAEP is a big deal. Engler, for what it’s worth, became a Washington lobbyist when he left the governor’s mansion back in 2003. For reference, his 2016 paycheck as President of the right-leaning Business Roundtable was $2,734,678.

I’m not sure who to blame on our inability to improve student success in the United States. Is it the presidents, who are hired to do so many things on campus, including and supposedly student success? Is it the boards, who are enticed by shiny items such as globalizing their institutions with campuses in Dubai and Qatar? Or is it simply the public, who allows all of this to go on.

To be fair, not all of the challenges we have in student success are because of the president of an institution. We have set up a dynamic for our 18-24-year-olds by expecting more and more of them to get a “higher” education without the requisite academic wherewithal to do so. We have set the bar so high based on this misperception that higher education is the only road to a successful career and fulfilling life. We do this by showing, time after time, the return in earnings by degree—a disservice to every other avenue to wealth, well-being, and prosperity.

In the end, we admit students to institutions where they won’t succeed and surely can’t afford. And somehow, we think this is good. Perhaps success starts with hiring the right people to focus institutions on learning and success. People who can realistically improve their institution to serve students, who, in turn, can serve society. Maybe the hardest decision is coming to terms with what student success entails and who can lead it.


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I’ll take US Higher Education for $400, Alex

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

Alex: Well, we have a barn burner today, folks. Scott, you’re still in command of the board and close to clinching, so go ahead and make a selection.

Scott: Thanks, Alex, let’s go “US Higher Education for $400,” please.

Alex: Well, its today’s Daily Double. [crowd goes crazy]

Scott: I’ll wager $2,000, Alex.

Alex: For $2,000, here is your clue: This item costs four-year institutions over $7 billion a year in the United States. We’ll be right back after these messages.


Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been playing with a lot of data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). I’ve boasted about their data before. Simply wonderful for us analysts.

Telling the story of higher education is difficult because it is increasingly complex. Ask me about the retention rate at any institution, and I’ll have to query you on the parameters of which you seek. Nothing is simple because the definitions aren’t simple.

I thought today I would throw out a few numbers that readers may find interesting. They aren’t perfect numbers, because the IPEDS database is not so perfect, but they’re pretty good. The IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) database includes all Title IV institutions in the United States, who are required to submit a number of annual surveys of information to the US Department of Education. Ask any institutional researcher at a college or university and their eyes will surely roll about these surveys because they are an ominous, if not important, process that has to be done from the smallest institution to the largest. If institutions choose not to do it, they forfeit any federal financial aid (e.g., Pell, student loans) for their students. Thus, they all do it. The Title IV status means everything in the United States.

The challenge in IPEDS data is that some data are “missing.” That is, not all institutions provide data for all questions. This makes analysis a tad difficult because you have one of two choices: either you run the analysis on the schools for which you have the requisite data to conduct your query; or you impute values into these missing fields. The latter process is tricky and extensive to do properly, so I am selecting the first manner, understanding that it leaves some data on the floor. In the end, my analysis still accounts for 98 percent of total enrollment at four-year institutions in the US.

Here is what I’ve found.

At public four-year institutions, the average total revenue per FTE student is $24,370, with an average tuition and fee revenue of $7,840[1]. The additional revenues on top of tuition and fee charges include government subsidies, research funding, and other sundry items. At the four-year privates, the numbers are larger: an average of $25,631 for total revenue, of which $16,335 is derived from tuition. Obviously, the private institutions rely much more on tuition and fee charges for their revenue than public institutions, although the gaps are lessening each year.


SOURCE: Author’s calculations using IPEDS data (PowerStats)

Public institutions, on average, admitted 61 percent of their 5.8 million applicants, while private, not-for-profit institutions admitted 50 percent of 4.5 million applicants. However, the actual enrollment of students (those who showed up at school) was far less. At publics, 18 percent of applicants enrolled, compared to 11 percent at privates.

Now, back to Jeopardy.

Alex: Right before the break, Scott wagered $2,000 for this clue: This item costs four-year institutions over $7 billion a year in the United States. What say you, Dr. Swail?

Scott: Alex, What is the cost of student departure from higher education?

Alex: That’s it! And with that, Scott win’s today’s round. He’ll be around tomorrow to play against Watson. See you then. 

And this is true. Together, our four-year public and private not-for-profit institutions lose approximately $7 billion a year in lost revenues from students who chose not to return to their institution from the prior year. This amounts to almost $5 billion for four-year public institutions and $2.0 billion for four-year private, not-for-profit institutions. From tuition and fee revenue alone, publics lose $1.6 billion and privates $1.5 billion.

Regardless of how one counts it, this is a lot of coin.

In truth, it is understood that institutions cannot expect to retain all their freshmen students. However, we lose a significant number of them. As the table above illustrates, one quarter of all four-year students leave their institution after a year. Some institutions do much better than others, but this is the average. This results in significant hemorrhaging on behalf of institutions of higher education, but it has become the status quo modus operandi of the industry. Institutions expect to lose students, so they enroll more students. And it goes on and on and on, with an incredible lack of efficiency. This is the cost of our higher education system.

Important to note that this is only a reflection of the revenues generated by an institution. It doesn’t include the opportunity and actual costs that students and families pay for an squandered education. Some students, of course, transfer to other institutions. But many do not.

What if each institution was able to improve their fall-to-fall retention rates only two percent? Public, four-year institutions, collectively, would retain over $93 million in revenue: $29 million from tuition and fees alone. For the private institutions, retained earnings would total $20 million, of which $12 million are tuition based.

Student departure is costly. Given that our first-to-second year retention rate is but 75 percent at the four-year level, and the costs and prices of higher education continue to climb and climb and climb, we really can’t settle for this anymore. In the end, institutions lose the revenue. But long after leaving higher education, taxpayers and students are paying for the privilege.

By the way, I have these data on every four-year insitution in the US. Email me for details.

[1] Analysis did not include enrollment weighted numbers.

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Sixteen Years of Writing

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

I was doing a little math today. Since 2006, EPI has published over 300 commentaries through the former Education This Week and The Swail Letter. Not all were written by me. Former EPIer Alex Usher wrote a bunch, and other guest columnists, like Steve Trachtenberg, Don Heller, Peter Smith, and Roseanne Runte, made contributions over the years. Still, I personally have written over 260 commentary blogs since 2006. That is a lot of writing, I’m thinking. Many of these were re-posted in the EPI books Commentary 2006, Commentary 2007, Educated Thoughts, and this year’s Stop Making Sense. Others are difficult to find in the cobwebs of, well, the web.


And we didn’t just write commentaries, either. Since July 15, 2014, we have published 86 EPIGraphs, our graphic illustrations of data points related to critical education issues. For what it is worth, I produce every one of those EPIGraphs personally. It is one of the things I love to do on an almost weekly basis. To do this, I rely heavily on data collected by the US Government, most of which is through the US Department of Education via the National Center for Education Statistics. At one time I sat on the Technical Review Panel for several of the NCES longitudinal and cross-section studies, including NPSAS and its offspring, B&B and BPS. They are wonderful children. I remain an avid user and nerd-fan of PowerStats, QuickStats, and the IPEDS databases. I enjoy my technical chats with the professionals at the department and the Beltway Bandits who support these projects. You know who you are and I have the utmost respect for all of you! I also rely on US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which we loving call “BLS,” and the US Census Bureau data, too. Other pieces come from various sources, including several of our excellent professional associations. But 90 percent of my data comes from taxpayer-supported federal government projects and employees, who do an outstanding job of describing “what is” in this world. For everyone who wants less government, we don’t want less of this. Very quickly: if you are from Canada, Britain, or Australia, to make a point, you have to pay for government data. What do I mean? I mean, I literally have to pull out a credit card and pay for a data dump. Statistics Canada, AKA StatsCan, requires payment for key data. Many things are publically accessible, but if you want the real stuff you have to pay for it. The US federal government? Free. All of it. That is why there are so many studies on the US: the data are available, and that was and continues to be the fundamental idea of doing business this way: if the government produces the data and makes it available, others will research and study it. Truly wonderful and exceptional.

EPI sends our information to over 3,500 people on our email list, many of whom, I assume, do not actually receive it or bother to read it (Changed emails? Nonresponsive? Dead? Still Watching GOT?). Others receive through LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

We (and me) have never been paid to put out this information. EPI has never received any funding to support this work, including the other publications we do. Not a dime. Only a fraction of our publications came from funded studies, mostly because the work we do is proprietary: that is, the client doesn’t want the information we produce to be publically available. Much of this is evaluation work, and, in the end, it is their discretion whether to release it or not. Thus, almost everything you see on our website was produced by us, with no core funding, because we thought it was the right thing to do. In the end, that’s why I started EPI back in 2002. For public good.

I hope you have enjoyed reading our stuff and will continue to do so in the future. We are currently working on a monograph series focused on student retention and success, my pet area of study. We enjoy producing this work, but it has become harder to do while also chasing new contracts and work, which are seemingly more difficult to attract. EPI receives no philanthropic support. None. All of work comes from RFPs and proposals for funding.

So, with this note I ask you to do one thing: ff you enjoy The Swail Letter and EPIGraph, among other EPI publications, please forward notifications to your colleagues and get them to sign up for our emails. We want more people to read our work. We do it to be read; not simply for some sick personal satisfaction (I do get some satisfaction, I do not lie!). The letters and graphs take considerable effort. Each EPIGraph takes between 1 and 4 hours to produce. Most take around three hours, is my estimate. That is a solid chunk of time. The Swail Letters vary greatly, as you might expect. Some, like a song, come quickly and I can write and edit in an hour. But 80 percent of them, especially when I am pulling data and checking sources, take somewhere between four hours and even a day or more to write. This is real time.

And I do appreciate the emails from colleagues with their point of view and even the grammar police out there (I am one of them!) who tell me when I get something wrong. I appreciate being corrected, although some people can be amazingly rude about it, almost as if they paid for this or something! Funny. Still, I am comforted by the fact that the Oxford Comma still rules the day, so I am okay. It is one thing we have over the New York Times is that we have it right (write?) and they have it wrong. The Oxford comma rules!

Please get the word out. Get your colleagues to sign up for our emails on our mainpage and/or “like” us on Facebook, twitter (@wswail), and LinkedIn. That would help us out enormously.

Thank you for reading. Now get back to work.


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15 to Finish More Complicated Than it Sounds

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


Did you know that only one third of four-year public students who earn a bachelor’s degree do so in four years? Another 25 percent complete in the fifth year, and a whopping 36 percent completing in six or more years[1]. Think about that for a moment. Truly the cost, in terms of fiscal and opportunity, is enormous for the two-thirds of our BA recipients who fail to complete on time. Add to this the time and money spent by the 51 percent of postsecondary students who never complete a degree at all, and we have a serious issue.

Last week, higher education institutions from West Virginia signed on to the Momentum Pathways Project[2] to encourage student success in higher education. The project utilizes a strategy known as “15 to Finish,” which encourages students to take 15 credit hours each semester in order to finish on time. The initiative also focuses on advisor training and degree maps.

All these things are good.

But all bring their requisite complexities that are not as simple as signing a memorandum of understanding. As in all things, if these issues were so simple, we would have fixed them already.


The complexity begins with the reality that we admit young adults to higher education who are neither academically nor socially prepared for the long endeavor of a four-year degree program. To be truthful, many are also unprepared for the two-year endeavor. Thus, colleges—and students—begin with significant deficits along the educational pathway. A sure sign of this challenge is that one-third of beginning postsecondary students take at least one developmental course when they enter higher education. At two-year public institutions, that percentage is 51 percent.[3] The percentages are lower for full-time students, but still reach 32 percent for two-year students and 15 percent for four-year students.

The 15 to Finish concept reaches its first hurdle at admissions, which is complicated by the fact that institutions do not have enough competent advisors on campus. The road to-and-through higher education is littered by barely or completely incompetent advising in high school and higher education. I only have to reach back as far as my three children’s higher education experience or even farther to my own undergraduate experience to understand how challenging it can be to trust a pathway formed by someone else who is too often completely ignorant of a student’s situation and the particular barriers at any given institution at any given place in time.

Without proper training and the use of professional advisors, students are left with the advice from people who are too often deficient in the knowledge of course requirements and the challenges thrown in the student pathway by courses that are only offered occasionally. Raise your hand—how many readers know a student who has had to take an extra semester in college because the one or two courses they needed were not available when they needed them? My hand is up for me and all three of my sons. We all had to extend our programs due to availability in courses.

The use of degree maps is incredibly important. Advisors must help students visualize their multi-year program at the outset. As well, they must plan for contingencies that may happen along the way. Drops and withdrawals; Ds or Fs; social and family issues. Across a four-year program, all students run into certain situations that wreak havoc on their grand educational and career plans. It happens. Thus, advisors must concern themselves with what could happen, not just what they hope will happen.

Similarly, students must possess the intellectual strength to understand this pathway at the outset and understand that navigational challenges along the way will only complicate matters later. Thus, it is better to knuckle down that deal with these consequences. Students need to understand this.

In reality, this is difficult to do, of course, especially for 18-19-year olds. Unfortunately, these students do not get “smarter” until a little more maturity sets in. All of this is made so difficult in today’s colleges and universities. If you haven’t done so lately, go on to any college website, especially a four-year program, and attempt to navigate which courses one needs to take for a bachelor’s degree. You pick. I consider myself fairly astute and certainly well informed on higher education; arguably much higher than average, given my vocation. Still, I was pulling my hair out trying to figure all the variable pieces when I had to do this with my kids. It gets mindnumbingly complicated once you get by the general course work that students are required to take. As an example, I remember sitting in the advisor’s office at George Mason University with my freshman son during his orientation for Engineering school. The advisor quickly pulled out a piece of paper and crossed out and circled different boxes on the page: “Don’t take this one. A waste of your time. You have to take this one, though.” In the end, he was a good advisor, but we would have never known that Course X was not necessary and a “waste of time” from the page he handed us. The problems came when certain courses weren’t available in the third and fourth year of the program. My son finished in 4.5 years. Not bad, but for me, it was another seven months of living costs in the very expensive Northern Virginia area. For him, more college life at an opportunity cost in the real world.

This leads to the next barrier. Colleges make the 15 to Finish issue much more challenging in the designation of General Education courses. Always constructed with the idea that this will make a more well-rounded student, Gen Ed courses often simply get in the way of students attaining a degree by demanding they take course or courses that they (a) have no interest in; (b) have no bearing on their career interests; (c) that they are deathly afraid of and do not want to take; or (d) have mastered that content previously. There are some answers to each of these areas in institutional policies, such as testing out, but not enough. I still argue vehemently why an institution should require a student who is not in the mathematics sciences in any remote manner to take a mathematics course as a general ed course when they labored through 6-10 math courses in high school. Why? It makes zero sense beyond academic snobbery and perhaps the protection of certain sections in the course catalogue. We call that professorial welfare.

In the same vein, colleges must rethink the gatekeeper courses, some of which are Gen Ed courses; others are more in line with a major study area. But if one particular course is keeping a student from completing a degree, it should be argued whether that course is necessary for completion. Certainly, many a time it is. But often it is not, fulfilling its role as a gatekeeper.

One more consideration is to question why we are stuck on the 120 credit, four-year program. Give me a pen and I can jettison one quarter of the courses students are required to complete for graduation pretty quickly. Am I write? Perhaps not, but enough very smart people, like GWU’s Steve Trachtenberg, have argued this for years.

In the end, completion of a college degree requires incredible navigation by the student, by the college, and by the parents. The process is made painfully difficult and causes thousands of students to finish in the fifth or sixth year.

The 15 to Finish is a novel look at the problem of completing outside the 100 percent window. The challenge remains in how we perceive solutions to these problems. If West Virginia and other states really want to tackle the issue, they will need to be much more aggressive than the Momentum Pathways Project.



[2] Other than the one news item from West Virginia, I could find no additional public information on this Project on my search, March 5, 2018.


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Matching Skills, Credentials, and Jobs

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scientist, Educational Policy Institute

I’ve long made the connection between the relatively lack of connection between a college degree and the workforce in terms of skill sets. Sure, many of the skills developed in college are hugely beneficial in the private and public sectors. No argument. But for them to have impact, one must have an understanding of how the institution curates these skills in students. Institutions, by and large, are best at knowledge if compared with competence. If a student completes a degree program, there is some expectation that they have acquired some level of proficient knowledge as a core in their degree. There is less information on what level of skill they have developed during this time. This is a major difference, in large part, between two- and four-year institutions. Four year institutions, especially at the certificate level, focus on the acquisition of knowledge and the corresponding skill that goes with that knowledge. Think computer-numeric control or and IT certification. If someone has a certificate in C++ programming, I am confident that they can code in C++. Same can be said for a dental hygienist or an RN.

Universities have many programs that are very certification-like. This is mostly in the medical arts arena, but I’m sure it can be argued across the curriculum, to a degree. However, in those areas that lead to open (non-professional) jobs in the workforce, how can anyone be guaranteed whether the university has transferred these skills to its students?

There are many reports available that focus on what businesses say they want in their employees. I conducted a quick web search and found a number of them. What I found was that most of these surveys found similar findings, albeit not identical. What I mean is this: the same types of skills come up in different reports and surveys, but the order of their relative importance shifts greatly. To me, this illustrates that different people value different skills in priority order.

Five Surveys on Employee Skill Sets


The list above gives you an idea of the main attributes that business heads and others say they relish in an employee. Some of these studies are more sophisticated than others. In fact, I was not able to discern exactly what some of these did to create these “lists.” So, keep that in mind with regard to the empirical nature of this reporting.

The reader should notice the similarity between the five sources. In my loose analysis of these (below), I found that communications is easily the top item. Communication is typically described as having the ability to get your point across in a convincing manner; being able to express your point in a clear and convincing manner; and being able to relate to your workers and clients when doing so.

EPI Summary of Skill Set Surveys 

1 Communication
2 Teamwork
3 Leadership
4 Analytical and Research
5 Organizational
6 Problem Solving/Critical Thinking
7 Computer
8 flexibility and adaptation
9 Friendly/Interpersonal
10 Technical skills

Second on the list is teamwork: the ability to work together in order to push projects and assignments down the line. Third is leadership, a term we use to describe those who can guide the teams toward the goal posts. Leadership surely involves having insight and ability to recognize trends while also serving as a focal point for the company. Analysis is an important skill: being able to read and write and comprehend and make sense of complicated data and reporting. Organization refers to being able to coordinate multiple activities and get things done, especially in a fast-paced environment. Having the critical thinking and problem-solving capacity is a major request from business and industry. The Top 10 list from these efforts also include computer savvy, flexibility, interpersonal skills, and technical skills. There are many other items that are not in this Top 10 list that are critically important, including confidence, creativity, initiative, punctuality, self-motivation, and work ethic.

These are all important and ranking them is difficult and perhaps not particularly useful. Ultimately, we want to know the most important skill set to an employee so we can match it with the proper “higher” education. In reality, we want employees to come with a tool kit filled with a myriad of skills. Let’s face it, one doesn’t just need a hammer. We need a hammer with nails, just like we need a saw with the wood, and so on. We need skills to work in combination to bring about the type of effort and end point that is useful to our companies. And surely, for life in general.

Still, we are left with wondering if most institutions cultivate these skills in students. A “good” university education should do so, but encouraging a lot of reading, writing, and comprehension; by demanding teamwork and presentation skills; by working on complex problems; and forcing students to be ultra organized. But there is no guarantee that they will, in fact, gain these skills. Arguably, there is nothing to say that many students do not possess many of these attributes at the end of high school. I posit that many high school students emanating from outstanding high schools have more proficiency in these hard and soft skills than other college graduates from institutions that do a poor job of embedding this level of learning in their curriculum. And this is a problem.

To be sure, every graduate of a postsecondary institutions should possess most of these skills. They all should be strengthened in the workforce, but there needs to be a foundation to build upon. We need to make sure that institutions are doing a better job of transferring these skill sets to students. Otherwise, we just create knowledge. And knowledge by itself isn’t very useful.

For other topics that touch on this issue, read these Swail Letters:



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Debating How Much Education Society Really Needs

by Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D., President, Educational Policy Institute

The Hechinger Report posted an article by Michael Lawrence Collins last week on whether college is worth it. Collins wrote that students need to “think like investors.” Well, he’s right. They should. But would you put your money on a 17-18-year old investor? Not me. We wouldn’t because they haven’t learned the requisite skills to made prudent decisions about the future, let alone the future of a world as volatile as ours is. Sure, people like to say that people will have seven careers before they die. Um. Not true, mostly. For blue collar works, perhaps. For white collar, the issue is how you define “career.” People move from job to job more than they used to, but are they doing different work? If you are a financial type and work at a fashion house then move to an industrial center, are you doing different work? No. Just a different address in most cases.

The question for many of those that do change occupations is whether their changes are due to their lack of a “higher education,” or because they do not possess the requisite skills to earn a stable living in a volatile world? The common perception, and a perception voiced in Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, is that high school students do not possess the attributes for this and future workforce because many of the future jobs will require postsecondary education.

However, when I review data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), I see a different trend occurring away from postsecondary education. For those that still latch on to the reality that people with high levels of postsecondary education earn more, that remains true. But one must consistently ask this question: is it because of the skill set those graduates possess that allows them to earn more? Or is it the credential—the piece of parchment—that business and industry looks for. I think it is mostly the latter, with exceptions for professional enterprises, such as accounting and lawyering and such.

As the following data illustrate, half of all job growth between 2016 and 2026 will require less than a postsecondary credential. To be accurate, 44 percent of the jobs will require a high school degree (or less). Only six percent will require either a BA or “some college.” That is quite a different perspective, isn’t it? This is only about job growth, however, representing approximately 19 million “occupational openings” between 2016 and 2026, defined as openings created by people leaving jobs or new jobs created. Half of these jobs will reside in 39 occupational classification—of 819 in total. Only 39.

EPI will be releasing a monograph with a more intense review in the near future, but for this piece, let’s look at some of the BLS data focusing on growth.

Exhibit 1. Occupational Openings and Wages between 2016 and 2026, by Education Level, Top Quartile.


Exhibit 1 focuses on the top quartile of job growth. Out of those 819 jobs, only 10 jobs account for the total occupational growth. The major standout here is that none of these jobs require a postsecondary certificate, diploma, or degree. Not one. These jobs represent 4.7 million jobs to be available for workers by 2026. Also important to note is that the average income of these jobs is just $23,269. Think of that for a moment. The poverty line for a family of four is almost at that number ($24,600). To put this in perspective, this amount is equivalent to about $10.60 an hour. But the reality is that people at this earning level are likely not to work 40 hours a week, because employers have reduced the hours for many workers below 35 hours/week to reduce or even eliminate benefits.

Here is the second highest quartile of job growth.

Exhibit 2. Occupational Openings and Wages between 2016 and 2026, by Education Level, Second-Highest Quartile.


Much more diversity in type of jobs here. This group also represents 4.7 million jobs, but the educational level creeps up as does the salary. Here, the average income is $38,243, significantly higher than the top growth quartile. However, even in this quartile, 20 of the 29 jobs do not require anything beyond a high school diploma; 2 require a postsecondary “non degree”; 5 a bachelor’s degree; and 2 “some college.”

As previously stated, of the top 50 percent of job growth by 2026, via 39 of 819 total job classes, as high as 44 percent of these jobs will require only a high school degree (or less).

Let us be reminded: these data do not say that college doesn’t matter. It does. Greatly. These are only job growth statistics. In our monograph we will also explore total jobs. Good to note, however, is that of the 167 million expected jobs in 2026, two thirds will be represented by 100 of the 819 job classifications. Breaking down this group, 67 percent of these jobs will require high school or less. Ten percent will require an associate’s degree or less. Twenty percent a bachelor’s degree. And two percent a doctoral or professional degree. Only one third will require a postsecondary credential, and only 22 percent a BA or higher.

The future economy does not necessarily jive with projections in future jobs. Job growth, largely from companies that are working to greatly lower costs and rework their employment conditions so they can pay little or no benefits, leans toward little rather than large. Companies will higher college grads for jobs that they think require college grads. But they will hire the lowest common denominator for everything else. These statistics illustrate this cleanly. Not adjusted here are lost jobs that will be lost to increased robotization, something that Elon Musk of Tesla/SpaceX says will be a major issue in the future. The future of Uber isn’t more Uber drivers. It is no Uber drivers. The future of trucking isn’t more drivers. It is to replace them with Artificial Intelligence. Think not? Both driverless cars and trucks are being tested around the country and states and localities are passing new laws in favor of these vehicles. While the President wants to bring back manufacturing to the US, most manufacturers are pushing the de-humanization of the assembly line. What does this mean? These numbers are likely the positive spin on the future. It will likely be worse, and perhaps much worse.

I didn’t dig down into the entire 819 classifications, but I did go down to the 75th percentile of growth. What I found was not promising. Of the 121 total jobs that make up the top 75 percent of job growth by 2026, 70 percent did not require a postsecondary credential of any type. None. Nine percent required either a postsecondary non-degree or some college, 18 percent a BA, 2 percent a graduate degree, and 2 percent an associate’s degree. That makes 22 percent or roughly 1 in 5, required a college degree of any type.

Blame it on what you want, but these data buttress what I’ve said for years: the majority of future jobs will not require a postsecondary degree, especially a bachelor’s degree. If we take this discussion further and start talking skill sets, I am firm in arguing that our employers use credential as short hand for skills, and that could not be further from the truth. Earning a degree means something. It means a lot. But it says little, depending on discipline, on what skills someone has earned during their degree program. A 2006 study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that only 38 percent of four-year graduates and 23 percent of two-year graduates were “proficient” in Prose (reading comprehension), and only 34 percent of four-year graduates and 18 percent of two-year graduates were proficient in quantitative skills. College graduates were much higher than non-college graduates, but the “skill” level, with regard to quantitative and qualitative reasoning is certainly an underachievement.

This is a complex topic, to be fair. We will be looking at this in depth in the very near future and producing more information for release. However, these data come with a warning that we should (a) be very mindful of the jobs that are likely to be available in the future and how that matches with our higher education system; and (b) we should do a much better job of anticipating these shifts and retool our higher education to provide skill sets that will propel the nation forward. If we do the latter, then the estimates provided are likely to shift, too.

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Things Aren’t Always as They Seem

by Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D., President, Educational Policy Institute

For decades, the Educational Policy Institute and SwailLandis has worked with schools, colleges, and universities to help these organizations increase student persistence and graduation rates. We’d like to say that we have been very successful in helping these places, but it is difficult to state because the actual change tends to happen long after our consulting and evaluation contracts have expired. As dastardly as it sounds, my sense is that most institutions do not make positive change for students because it is too hard, takes too long, and there isn’t the institutional or political conviction to follow through on their ambition.

Institutions say a whole lot about the great work they do for students. It is in many ways both truthful and expected marketing. I have visited hundreds of institutions that do marvelous things for students. But sometimes the hyperbole outweighs the actions.

Two recent stories about institutional fraud—for lack of better or more accurate words—are germane to this discussion. The first was reported on NPR’s All Things Considered on November 28, 2017, and the second yesterday in Crain’s Chicago Business.

A few years ago, we conducted a large study in the District of Columbia in the most economically-challenged areas of the city—Wards 8 and 9. The study was conducted for a large philanthropy to verify the impact of their funding. We visited a number of schools and enjoyed talking with principals, teachers, and others related to the program, including then-DCPS Chancellor (e.g., Superintendent) Kaya Henderson. While some great things were happening, we left with reservations about the study and about the program in general and reported as such.

And then I read this NPR report yesterday.

NPR reported in late November that the graduate rates at Ballou High School in DCPS did not represent reality.  Ballou was one of our target schools a few years back. The conclusion of the NPR study found that the majority of Ballou High School’s 100 percent graduating class had missed more than six weeks of school, but graduated regardless.

A teacher was quoted in the NPR piece: “You saw kids walking across the stage, who, they’re nice young people, but they don’t deserve to be walking across the stage.” And if teachers raised an issue about passing students along, they were “painted as ‘haters’ who don’t care about students.” Some teachers said that teachers were let go if they held students back.

Students in Ballou High School’s 2017 graduating class, grouped by number of unexcused absences. Each dot represents one student.


Rewind two years previous when we visited Ballou High School. I had previously visited Ballou about 20 years ago before its recent $124 million renovation. To put it succinctly, no one would have wanted to send their children to the old Ballou. The conditions were atrocious. Water fountains and bathrooms were inoperable. Students reportedly smoked and had sex in bathrooms and closets. And then there was the rat infestation. We had one teacher tell us that he saw a rat run across his desk one day.

When we visited two years ago during the inaugural year of the new building, we were simply astonished. It was, arguably, the nicest school building we have ever seen let alone visited. With a state of the art theater, indoor pool, and even a triangular quad (I know, but what would you call it?) that, interestingly enough, they didn’t allow students to go in to.



But while the “new” Ballou looked wonderful, what was going on in the school was problematic, as now evident through the reporting by WAMU and NPR. The report stated that half of the graduates missed more than three months of unexcused absences in their senior year.

Less than two weeks ago, the principal at Ballou High School was removed from his position.

Former DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, a protégée of lightening rod Michelle Rhee, often spoke about the progress that her district had made, just as Rhee did before her. Even the Washington Post wrote gleamingly about the progress during her five-year tenure, it is difficult to trust the data, especially after the NPR report. For those of us on the outside, we wonder whether DCPS really did improve rather than play the numbers. The Post said that the four-year graduation rate in the district improved from 53 to 64 percent from 2011 to 2015. They also said that the proficiency of fourth-grade students in reading increased from 14 to 30 percent from 2007 to 2015.

Given what was learned in the NPR study and report, and given what we learned in our study a few years ago in the District, I have trouble buying their progress. Quite simply, what we saw on the ground buttresses what NPR found. When we were looking for data from DCPS, we couldn’t get it. They wouldn’t give it to us even though we were working on a very important study for a philanthropic organization that pushed over a $100 million into the district. Hurdle after hurdle was put in front of us in our quest to access student data. In the end, the data we did get came from a third-party not-for-profit organization not affiliated directly with DCPS.

This lack of transparency in the district screams about the district mindset. And while I do not wish to lump everyone into the same category, because it is difficult to compare schools in northwest versus schools in southeast, DCPS has been and remains a troubled school district.

In a separate article from yesterday, we learn about the 2015 selection of Kennedy-King College in Chicago by the Aspen Institute for tripling its graduation rate in recent years. The College received national recognition and a $100,000 prize from Aspen. The problem comes from the fact that Chicago City Colleges had omitted previous pastry school graduates from the denominator, thereby making their graduation rate look better (the Pastry school has much higher graduation rates than other colleges and programs, so by not including them in the denominator and including graduates in the numerator, the college was able to show an incredible increase from 8.9 percent graduation rate in 2009 to 25.9 percent in 2013).

Here is the takeaway for readers: when one comes across a really large statistical increase, it probably isn’t true. And for the Aspen Institute, a very worthwhile and important organization, they should have known better. I’ve been around this carousel too many times. After peeling back the proverbial onion a little more, one finds that the denominator or the numerator has changed definition.

The same goes for DCPS and other schools. They like to play with the numerators and denominators to show their best face. We see it in pre-college outreach programs all the time. They post that 100 percent of their high school students graduate from the program and go to college. But they only count students who are in their program at the start of the 12th grade instead of those who start at the beginning of the program in 9th or 10ths grade (or earlier). GEAR UP programs consistently miscount their graduates, as does Upward Bound. They use augmented data to demonstrate progress and shade inconsistencies. Let us be clear: many of these programs do really significant work. But the administrators  should all take another math course. Or ethics. Probably both.

These two stories tell us to be wary of the gains suggested from educational institutions. Hopefully, most of them are accurate. But school districts and colleges paint the best picture of themselves in public reporting, just like almost any other organization or company does. Quarterly forecasts by public companies often paint a very rosy picture for stock purposes, but can also be burned if they flat out misrepresent data and can be fined accordingly by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other organizations. Schools of any level rarely get their hands slapped for similar but different situations.

In the end, we can only help schools when we have an accurate picture of what is happening to their students.

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Legislation to Improve Graduation Rates Could Have the Opposite Effect

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

This is an opinion piece I wrote for the Chronicle Review and published on January 23, 2004. I stumbled upon it the other day and thought it was worth a repost on The Swail Letter. Let me know if you agree, disagree, and whether the same holds true 13 years later.

As Congress tackles the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, it will undoubtedly tinker with Pell Grants, loan limits, teacher training, and distance education, just as it has in the past. What makes this reauthorization different, however, is the potential for legislators to create new mechanisms to hold colleges, and perhaps states, more accountable for quality, affordability, and student outcomes. One target for government action is institutional graduation rates.

Over the past 50 years, college enrollment has increased about sevenfold, to more than 15 million students. Yet, through much of that time, average graduation rates for four-year colleges have basically held constant, at about 50 percent, and have been as low as 34 percent at two-year institutions. Put another way, at least half of all students who have entered a four-year institution have failed to realize the dreams and aspirations that led them there in the first place. That issue, as part of an overall discussion of accountability, has caught the attention of the Bush administration and members of Congress.

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 2, 1964. The CRA, along with the Social Security Act and Higher Education Act in 1965, were crucial pieces of legislation for the middle class. Johnson used 75 pens to sign the Bill, giving them to participants in the process, including Martin Luther King, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and Senator Everett Dirksen. (AP)

Early last year, the administration floated the idea of creating a grant program to reward institutions that retain students and graduate them on time. While no specific legislation has been proposed, policy makers are considering with interest a model developed by Eugene W. Hickok Jr., U.S. undersecretary of education, when he was Pennsylvania’s secretary of education. He created a $6-million grant program to reward Pennsylvania institutions that graduated at least 40 percent of their in-state students within four years. Unfortunately, not one public college in the state has qualified.

It’s not surprising that government leaders are calling on colleges to graduate many more students — and that some legislators have even suggested tying institutions’ Title IV funds, which are used for student-aid programs, to graduation rates. But unless Congress recognizes that different institutions face different challenges, and unless it provides adequate resources to help increase retention, it will be asking the impossible. In fact, any such legislation could have the opposite effect: reducing access for poor and minority students and creating even greater numbers of dropouts.

In recent years, the problem of keeping students in college has intensified because the basic concept of “going to college” has changed drastically. The nature of the student body and the pathways to and through postsecondary education have become far more heterogeneous and complex. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, which surveyed more than 9,000 students from hundreds of institutions in 1996, with follow-up surveys in 1998 and 2001, one-quarter of freshmen are from low-income backgrounds, almost one-third are nonwhite, and 40 percent are the first in their families to attend college. Such students — often not as academically or socially prepared as others for higher education — are more prone to drop out. Indeed, 45 percent of black students and 39 percent of Hispanic students, on average, leave college within six years without earning degrees, compared with 33 percent of white students and 26 percent of Asian-American students. Similar gaps exist by income.

The survey also revealed that:

  • Students who attended full time or on a continuous basis were much more likely to obtain bachelor’s degrees than other students were.
  • Half of the students who immediately enrolled in public four-year colleges earned their degrees at those institutions, compared with only 27 percent of the students who delayed enrollment.
  • One-fourth of all students who enrolled in college for the first time moved to other institutions before obtaining degrees.
  • Almost half of first-time students who left their initial institutions by the end of the first year have not returned to higher education.

Such data convincingly demonstrate that immediate and continuous enrollment, full-time attendance, and remaining at the initial institution are important factors related to student persistence. Students from higher-income backgrounds are significantly more likely than lower-income students to fit that profile and go on to earn bachelor’s degrees. To help improve the odds that students from all walks of life will stay and get their degrees, colleges must provide additional services and support.

But their ability to provide such services and support varies greatly from one college to another. Last year, while directing a national study on student retention, I visited several institutions that serve a high proportion of low-income students. Half of the colleges had high graduation rates, and half had low graduation rates. We expected to find that those with high graduation rates would have a strong commitment to retaining students, shared by dedicated administrators and faculty members whose teaching strategies helped students from all backgrounds flourish academically and socially. And they did.

However, we were surprised at the extent to which money trumped all other factors in the ability of institutions to engage and retain students. Regardless of the success of any of their other efforts, colleges without the necessary resources could not even come close to those that could invest substantially in retaining students.

Wealthier institutions, like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, can afford to assign tutors to students, keep class sizes small, and provide extensive support services — and, of course, they graduate almost all of their students. At the other end of the educational spectrum are institutions with limited resources at their disposal. Lacking multibillion-dollar endowments, they are often open-admission colleges that must fight regionally and locally for students with combined SAT scores of 900, not 1450. They are likely to see 75 percent of their students leave before graduation. In fact, as many as 50 percent of their students leave by the end of the freshman year.

Those institutions are doing as well as could be expected given their financial circumstances. We found that their administrators and faculty and staff members were as dedicated, if not more so, as those at other institutions, and that they offered a good-quality education. Yet their missions often differed significantly from those of wealthier colleges. For some, the institutional mission was to provide an educational experience for students who normally would be denied such an opportunity. Other institutions, like historically black colleges and universities, were born to provide a rich cultural experience in parallel with academics. While affluent institutions can pile on resource after resource to make the difference in who comes, who stays, and who completes college, those other institutions settle for what they can muster from stretched budgets.

Unfortunately, that fundamental truth is being ignored on Capitol Hill today. Congress is right to require institutions to do more to keep their students enrolled. Yet colleges can’t improve retention if they don’t have the necessary financial support. Given the current atmosphere in Congress, institutions are more likely to lose resources than to gain them.

Indeed, if colleges continue to struggle for funds, the easiest way for them to improve graduation rates will be to restrict admissions, potentially forcing students out of universities and into community colleges, or out of community colleges and into low-paying jobs or unemployment lines. That could have the very opposite effect of what policy makers are seeking.

Legislators and Bush-administration officials ought to recognize the diversity of higher education: Different types of institutions serve different constituencies and have different missions. Any federal policy crafted to improve student retention should reflect that reality. Government leaders must create a system in which institutions are measured by their improvement rather than simply compared with peer institutions. The many anomalies among institutions make simple comparisons unfair.

In addition, policy makers must provide safety nets so that institutions can try new approaches without being penalized. There is nothing inherently wrong with incentive systems that reward institutions for “making the grade.” But it would be counterproductive if those without adequate resources to start with failed and — in a vicious cycle — lost out on funds that would help them do a better job in serving and retaining students.

Finally, the federal government should support and distribute research on student retention. College administrators need models that work.

Although the states are in poor financial straits, they, too, should adjust their priorities. A lack of resources is starving institutions of the government support they need to develop new retention programs. While it will not be easy, states need to deal with the problem of college dropouts before it becomes an economic debacle within their own borders and beyond.

Nor should institutions simply sit back and wait. As a result of growing financial pressures, presidents have become increasingly preoccupied with fund-raising and development activities unrelated to the academic mission. But they must refocus their attention on students and on keeping them enrolled. Retention starts in the president’s office. Without that leadership, any other campus efforts will be largely in vain.

We must continue the debate about graduation rates and encourage participation by federal and state policy makers, educators, and the public. But unless we recognize the different roles that various institutions play, and provide them with the resources needed to meet the challenge of college dropouts, the problem will only worsen. We must find better ways for policy makers and institutional leaders to work together to create greater opportunities and support for all qualified students. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 50, Issue 20, Page B16

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Blame Business

By Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D., President, Educational Policy Institute and Principal, SwailLandis

I have a problem with some business leaders. Sometimes they say one thing and mean another. Perhaps this is why we are getting more business types in politics these days. We don’t really know what they mean when they say something, so it always sounds like a pretty good deal. That is, until we find out what they really mean. Then we have a problem.


For years there have been arguments/discussions about establishing more dialogue between colleges and universities and business/industry about what the skills that graduates should possess. The complaint is that higher education does not produce graduates with the attributes that business and industry really requires in the workforce. Colleges produce degrees and certain skillsets, but does not always produce those skillsets commensurate with those valued in the working world.

In 2015, the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) hired Hart Research of Washington, DC to poll employers about college students. Here are some of their findings:

  • Ninety-one percent that career success requires a demonstrated capacity to “think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.”
  • Ninety-six percent said that college students should have “experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different fromtheir own.”
  • Seventy-eight 78 percent agree that “all college students should gain intercultural skills and an understanding of societies and countries outside the United States.”

In addition, employers endorse “broad learning as essential to long-term career success,” and they place the “greatest priority on a demonstrated proficiency in skills and knowledge that cut across majors,” including written and oral communication, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings.

It is hard to argue with any of these findings. These are what I want from employees. I want them to think critically, think on their feet, and have a diverse pattern of thought based on diverse experiences. I want intercultural skills. I want cross-cutting skills. As an employer, I simply want it all. To be fair, I don’t usually get all of this. I get some of it; but not all of it. That can be expected, of course. But colleges and universities do not do a very good job preparing people for the workforce. They prepare them to graduate.

What do I mean by that? They teach students the skills to finish coursework, to finish classes, to persevere from year-to-year until they march across the stage to receive their coveted parchment diploma.

My point in this Swail Letter is that I don’t generally buy what business is selling. Business says they want these attributes in their young workers, but their hiring practices illustrate a very different practice. For decades, business has focused almost exclusively on credential and less about competency. The resume provides two important credential items for employers: the degree and the college. The degree tells an employer the focus area of the prospective employee (e.g., business major with accounting). The college tells the employer about the selectivity of the institution, and arguably the quality of the institution.

The “soft skills,” as they like to call them, do not lift off a resume. With and many other job sites, resumes are mathematically processed to give a generic score of an applicant. The soft skill simply does not lift off the page. What does? The degree. The college. And perhaps the GPA. Here is language from the website about their “Talent Analytics” software:

Monster Talent Analytics gives you a fast, insightful approach to answering questions that move you forward:

  • Helps save you time and money armed with relevant data before making long-term decisions
  • Measure talent source performance and identify skill strengths, gaps, and trends
  • Access industry data to improve recruitment planning
  • Locate top schools for a major, top employers in a location, or top skills for a position

Sounds good to me. But what are they actually measuring? They say skill strengths, but how are they measuring that? I chatted with for this Swail Letter, and the reality is that all does is collect the resume information electronically from job seekers and keep it in a database. They match what is on the resume with what the employer is looking for. Thus, a fairly low bar of analytics. The “skill strengths” that monster boasts are simply self-reported data from job seekers. They can say anything.

The only possible measure of soft skills comes during an interview. Sure, someone could list community service activities on their resume, but that doesn’t mean that they either did them or that they aren’t just playing the system to plush up a resume. One does not know until they meet a prospective employee what they are like, and to be more truthful, one sometimes does not know until you employ them. Most employers will tell you that the hiring process is one of the worst jobs we do. It is a guestimate that the person you hire will be able to fulfil the work that you have in mind for them. This isn’t simply about entry-level employees, either. I have hired very senior people in the past that just didn’t cut it. I’ve found that there usually is a reason why people are available at certain points in their careers. Sometimes it is downsizing. Sometimes it just didn’t work out. In the end, buyers need to beware.

My point is simple: businesses have done the entire system a disservice by saying they want certain skills only to hire people on a completely different set of criteria: credentials. The degree tells me one thing: that the person has the ability to complete. That’s about it. Did they complete in four years? Five? Six? That really isn’t that relevant. I completed my bachelor’s degree from the University of Manitoba in five years. Not because I was lazy, but rather, because I changed majors after the first year and had to fit in 120 credit hours related to the new major. That decision cost me a year, and it was worth it. It got me here. Because of that decision, I was a better fit after one year of university. But to the employer, the five-year red flag might come across as a negative unless they dig deeper.

A degree doesn’t tell me exactly what the person excelled at in their studies unless they provide specific examples on their resume about what they did. In my line of work, if they say they are skilled in SPSS or SAS and they list the types of analyses they done in the past, I have some comfort in knowing what they can do for me. If they have done certain research and worked on specific projects doing “X,” it is very helpful. But their degree? Extraordinarily limited. Show me your skills!

This is why I have consistently pushed for a move toward competency-based education. As readers may know, this isn’t my first writing about CBE, and I apologize for the continued hyper focus on this issue. However, let us be clear: CBE affords an employer a clue to what skills the job seeker learned or practiced during his or her degree or certificate program. For those out there that say that CBE doesn’t fit everything, there is some truth to that, but only some. We can, through CBE, still measure English Literature and other things. It doesn’t take away important classroom dialogue about the meaning of Dostoevsky’s “one square yard of space” or the real meaning of Macbeth’s “out out, brief candle!” Those dialogues are the basis of intellectual curiosity and higher-order thinking skills. They are important. But the thought behind these things can be measured and attained.

My message to business and industry is simple: if you want these other, softer skill sets, then you need to work with institutions to help them build this into the degree programs and you must simply step away from using only credentials for your hiring practices. Until that happens, the only thing that really matters for a job seeker is if they went to college, where they went to college, and if they finished college. Because businesses don’t really look under the hood.

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Pushing Tin

By Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D.

A new publication Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report illustrates that the most popular undergraduate programs remain in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and journalism. However, they are also the least employed of college graduates. The best employed are the STEM graduates: those in engineering, manufacturing, and construction. They are employed at a rate of 88 percent compared to only 30 percent of the former group.

What does this tell us?

To be clear, it does not tell us that the liberal arts are bad degrees and a waste of time. That couldn’t be further from the truth. What it does say is that perhaps we feed too many people into programs that do not have a direct link with the work force and gainful employment.


In the end, this leads to an age-old philosophical dilemma in American higher education: is higher education vocational or avocational?

(ANSWER: It’s both. Even when it isn’t)

It is difficult to simplify such a complex issue, but at the same time it makes sense. We push—literally push—our children out the door into higher education. The obvious reality there is that not everyone has the advantage of the aforesaid “push.” Low-income, first-generation, and other youth, as well as many adults, do not or have not had the same advantages to “go to college.” To them, it is an aspiration more attune to fantasy. It just isn’t for them and society has made that abundantly clear.

For others, college is a right of passage. Even with the constant pressure of college cost and student debt, a truckload of students matriculates to college every year to enter that exciting audition to adulthood.

As you well know, some of these students don’t make it. In fact, half of students who enter higher education leave without a degree. Some of them swiftly, others along the way. Fifty percent. At the university level, a full third of entering students leave without a degree after six years of counting. One-for-three. Good in baseball; less good in college. But that’s what we are dealing with.

The real challenge is in gainful employment, a term that was popularized a few congresses ago on the attack on private, for-profit higher education. The Senate—Tom Harken to be precise—took it upon himself to take on an argument that began in the early 1990s against for-profit higher education. To be fair, it was a pretty solid argument: many of these providers were fleecing students and taxpayers of money: federally-supported money, like Pell Grants and subsidized loans. Without a doubt, this was a big business for for-profit colleges. Congress came down on them in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in 1992. And then Harken took a few more swipes at them in 2014. That’s where gainful employment came in.

As data would support, graduates and non-graduates of for-profit programs were under employed. They either were not working or were working much less than was hoped, very often in jobs that had little or anything to do with their degree. These students were typically burdened with student loan debt well beyond what they could afford to pay. For about a quarter of these students, the story ends with loan default and personal bankruptcy. Not a pretty picture for an individual who once thought they were subscribing to the promised land.

Much of the western world outside of the United States has some type of filter for higher education to try and regulate certain professions and higher education programs from being over subscribed. They do this with high-stakes testing and other policies. In the US, we only do that for highly- and moderately highly-selective institutions via SAT and ACT scores, mostly. But our non-selective, open-admissions institutions do very little filtering of students. For the most part—with some exception—students can enter the program that they want, with little or no regard for gainful employment at the end of their career.

For colleges, they are “pushing tin,” a term used by air traffic controllers for pushing aluminum airplanes through takeoff and landing vortex at airports. Our admissions professionals do this, too. It isn’t their fault. This is just how it is done. If there is an error in the system, it is purely at the policy level.

The argument of liberal arts makes this issue very complex. We certainly understand that if you plan to be an accountant, you will go to business school. If you want to go into engineering, you go to engineering school. But what jobs do liberal arts programs prepare for? Probably the majority of jobs that are filled by college graduates are filled by liberal arts majors. They are the writers. The thinkers. But the line from liberal arts degree to job is less linear than the “professions.” I always thought my brothers had it made: one became an engineer and the other a chartered accountant (the Canadian/British equivalent to a CPA in the US). From day one, their pathway was extremely well articulated. But for others, that pathway is a long and winding road that can divert in many directions.

There clearly exists a problem when 70 percent of graduates in the humanities and related degree programs are un or underemployed, as reported by OECD. And conversely, we aren’t putting enough students through STEM degrees for jobs that are currently available and will increase in the next decade. Adding some insult to injury, the OECD report also found that women enter STEM degrees at half the rate as men.

What do we do? Policy makers can make incentives for certain programs through grants and deductions. I don’t always think those programs work very well, but they could help. For colleges and universities, it really comes to them, to a degree, to retool their programs. Gainful employment became a rallying cry against for-profit higher education. The reality is that all higher education institutions should be held to a similarly high standard. All colleges and universities should be able to accurately describe how their graduates (and non graduates) fare in the workforce. Most institutions can use the Wage Record Interchange System (WRIS) to get information on employment and earnings on their students, but not many do it. Each state has its own regulations on who can access this information, but, for example, all institutions in California can access the system to find out this information.

Wouldn’t it be great if could see the gainful employment for colleges and programs? Just a thought. Otherwise, we’re just pushing tin.





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