The Song Remains the Same

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

I’m guilty. I did it. I Googled myself. I’m not sure why, but I did. Ego, I guess. It sounds worse that it is, but in the end, I Googled myself.

And what I found astonished me. I found a 15-year old video of me speaking at an event in Washington, DC. The date was June 25, 1999, and I was co-representing The College Board at a Brookings Institution dialogue led by former College Board Director Lois Rice and higher education expert Art Hauptman. The discussion was about the impending Higher Education Act and the creation of a new program called GEAR Up, or Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, a new Title IV program of the HEA to join, and at sometimes compete, with the TRIO programs (Upward Bound, Talent Search, and Student Success Services).


Dr. Swail at the Brookings Dialogue in 1999 (click on the graphic to watch)

The cast of characters reads like a who’s who of college access. Lois Rice acting as the moderator; Congressman Chaka Fattah providing an overview of the new GEAR Up program; as well as Acting Deputy Education Secretary Mike Smith; the Department’s Pauline Abernathy (now Vice President of The Institute for College Access &  Success); Steve Zwirling of The Ford Foundation; Linda Shiller of the Vermont Student Assistant Corporation; Juliet Garcia, then and still Chancellor of the University of Texas, Brownsville; my old boss and great guy John Childers of The College Board; another former boss, Arnold Mitchem of the Council for Opportunity in Education; and David Longanecker, former Deputy Education Secretary under the Clinton Administration, who was new into his current gig at the Western Interstate Consortium of Higher Education (WICHE).

Just watching the clip was like a reunion of sorts, including me viewing a former me with dark hair, bad glasses, but nice, if not dated, light yellow suspenders (yes, I still have them). While I only speak for a couple of minutes during this dialogue—and I’ve spoken more eloquently, to be sure—what struck me is that I would say pretty much the same thing if given the opportunity today. So I’m taking that opportunity now.

In short, I spoke of the challenges trying to produce outcome data for programs like GEAR Up and TRIO that can show that they have a positive (or negative) impact on students. The problem then and now is that these programs are largely too watered down by school districts. Since 1999, I have been involved and have followed these programs to a fine detail, and the song remains largely the same: they do not produce the outcomes as Congressman Fattah and Deputy Assistant Secretary Smith suggested they would, because the programs got too watered down by those who wanted to broaden it to more students with the same level of funds. Thus, the chance for impact is greatly reduced. The programs that keep focused do better because they serve a finite number of children; those that spread the dollars across larger groups of students and classrooms see virtually no impact.

Pauline Abernathy suggested that GEAR Up would leverage “universal” changes through how schools use their Title I and other funds, essentially “transforming” schools and how they use other monies to help kids. Ford’s Steve Zwirling echoed that by reminding participants that the dialogue is not about money but about ideas. He says that he couldn’t see how school districts with $9,000 per student in funding (now double that amount) would not be able to sustain the ideas and changes through GEAR UP. He was wrong, unfortunately, because school districts that I have either evaluated or followed have not done what Zwirling said they would do.

David Longanecker echoed my point and said that we didn’t have the luxury of waiting 20 years to find out if these public programs work. Interesting, 15 years later the data and the analysis of GEAR Up and similar programs are still equivocal. The programs work in some places and do not in others.

My bet is that if we brought together the today’s government and association stakeholders, the conversation would be much the same. This is a long video, but if you want insight into the thoughts back in 1999 about college access, this is a must see (and hear). Now back to my Googling.

To view the entire event, click here.


One thought on “The Song Remains the Same

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.