Educational Opportunity: The Interview at Tarrytown

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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