The Insatiable Desire for Fundraising in Education

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

If you have kids, at some point you’ve either heard of, supported, or even participated in your local Parent Teacher Association (PTA) or Organization (PTA). These arms-length non-for-profit organizations provide funds and other support to local schools. The new movie, Bad Moms, showcases PTOs in a tremendously poor light (led in a very funny way by Christina Applegate), but these organizations do help in significant ways. I’ve seen PTOs provide funds for school playgrounds, digital signage, and scholarships.


Like any organization, PTOs vary in numbers and strength. Some are small linkages of parents that conduct bake sales and other events and raise modest amounts of money to purchase supplies for teachers (e.g., paper, pencils, pens, which is insane when you think about it) while others are large, well-organized units that raise tens of thousands of dollars each year and have significant clout in the school. What is also interesting to note is that the larger PTOs tend to exist in the most affluent neighborhoods with the best public schools.

So what?

It means that advantage always has advantage, even in the public school system. People who live in nicer areas with nicer schools and better teachers also have larger support systems, such as the PTOs. While the funding from the schools is fairly set, these PTOs raise huge dollars for their affluent public schools compared to those living in less-privileged areas. It isn’t a bad thing to raise money necessarily, but it continues to tilt the table of opportunity for underserved populations.

In public higher education, fundraising has become a major focal point. If you speak with college presidents and VPs of fundraising, finding donors is about survival. They blame state legislators for not providing the money necessary to operate their institutions, which is mostly true. But not to be lost in this conversation is the unbridled quest of institutions to be bigger and better. Again, not a bad thing on the surface. Who doesn’t want better institutions with better services and buildings? But at what cost?

My point is that public institutions, whether they be elementary, secondary, or postsecondary, are looking to the private sector for more of their operating funds to increase their advantage over other schools. In some ways, it is a zero-sum game, because since everyone is doing it, there may be no significant difference in competition, except for the example I gave above where the best schools are simply better at fund raising.

Would we be better served by ensuring that schools have the necessary funding to operate at a high level and remove them from the fundraising game? Currently, there is little incentive to reduce the quest for higher and higher infrastructure because institutions are finding they can be successful at fundraising. The Chronicle of Higher Education and recently posted articles about how to better fundraise at institutions, and many national organizations focus on improved fundraising. One of the most prestigious positions at a public institution is the fundraiser. At private institutions, it is the hedge-funds guy. Think I jest? At Harvard, the top TWO fund managers earned $69 million in compensation in 2003. In 2012, 10 Harvard executives earned a combined $44 million and had a staff of 200 people (paid from a different budget).

Money is big business in higher education.

While the devil is in the details, the devil is mostly in currency. Money makes higher education go ‘round. And with it, comes an insatiable desire to build and collect more. And state policymakers are loving it because lets them off the financial hook.

It’s time to put the state governments back on the hook and perhaps limit fundraising for public institutions. While institutions claim that they the fundraising to compete, they wouldn’t if we restructured the system from the ground up.

Stay tuned.



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One Heck of a Week

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

Unless you were part of a very tight group of people in the Donald Trump campaign, you were likely surprised at the outcome of last Tuesday’s Presidential Election. Trump shocked the nation with his victory, and when I say nation, I mean everyone, from voters, to children, to prognosticators, and especially pollsters. Pollsters got this so wrong that an election that was set to be a landslide ended as a huge upturn of political society.


To be fair and honest, I was not particularly thrilled with the outcome of this election. But it “is what it is,” as we like to say, and America will move forward. My hope is that Donald Trump will rebound and not be like he was during his campaign. That he will be more “presidential,” less likely to lash out at 3am on twitter, and do things not just for the greater good, but with all citizens in mind, not just those who voted for him. In the end, that is what people want their president to be—fair and open minded, with the understanding that he leads 330 million people, not just the 60 million that voted for him.

With Trump’s acceptance on early Wednesday morning, he sounded a conciliatory tone that was, well, presidential. There existed a moment of calmness that this may not be us unnerving for some as we thought.

But then the activity began and the ground began to shake.

First was the announcement of Myron Ebell, a climate denier, as head of the EPA transition. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to appoint someone like Ebell unless you want to upend current federal policy and alter agreements in support of dirty coal and oil, setting back energy policy 40 years. Second, on Friday afternoon during a taping for 60 minutes that aired last night, Trump announced that he would immediately pursue, lock up, and deport up to 3 million illegal aliens who have criminal records. From an argumentative point of view, most of us could understand the point, but it is much more complex than it seems. Not all of the “criminals” are severe criminals. They aren’t all murders or rapists, of any of a serious ilk. But regardless, how we find and deport that many people is currently not logistically feasible. We can try, but we aren’t going to find a majority of them. What happens to the other, non-criminal illegal immigrants is unknown.

Then yesterday, Trump made the announcement that Stephen Bannon will serve as Chief Strategist of the Administration. Bannon is the former head of Breitbart News, a news agency that is anything but accurate and makes Fox News look like MSNBC by comparison. Breitbart is well known for its anti-Semitic and racist viewpoints.

From an education perspective, we aren’t really sure what Trump will do. Ben Carson has been floated as a possible Secretary of Education. Dr. Carson seems like a smart, decent person, so it is hard to argue that he would not be a good fit. What we do not know is what will happen with the US Department of Education in the near future. Will funding be significantly cut under Trump? Or will he heed pressure from right-wing demagogues who want the Department completely vanquished from the federal government?

The latter is unlikely. I think the days have passed when Republicans wanted to dismantle ED. But a majority of them would like to shrink it, and they will have their opportunity to do so. The Trump Chief of Staff is Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the GOP party. Priebus was chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party and helped bring Governor Scott Walker to power, who cut funding for the university system by hundreds of millions of dollars and weakened the power of academia in the state. Walker’s efforts sent shudders through American higher education. We will see if Priebus extends a similar effort via the US Department of Education.


In K-12, there is speculation that the Administration will end the Common Core, which is interesting because the Common Core is a non-federal, non-profit entity that is supported in large part by the Republican-majority National Governors Association. However, it is possible that the Trump Administration could remove current strings to Race to the Top funding that support the Common Core (this is likely), if not eliminate RTTT and many other programs like it, including i3 and First in the World. There is talk that more federal money will be targeted to charter schools.

There are large parts of the Department of Education that can’t really be touched in a considerable way. They could be moved, but not eliminated. The Department currently runs the Direct Loan programs for higher education, and it is possible that a Trump Administration could revert the program back to private banks. But the Department would still need to administer the program, so the SFA could not be eliminated completely. The Department also provides legislation and financial support for Special Education and other programs that focus on historically underrepresented population.Title I programs focused on poor and minority students could be challenged, as well as English Language Acquisition grants and other “leveling” grants could be dismantled. These programs could not easily be eliminated without widespread and widesweeping legislation that Congress is unlikely to want to remove or change.

However, other programs could exit. Current programs that focus on low-income and minority students could disappear. Trio and GEAR, for instance, could be gone in a second if the president wants them gone. Certainly, the idea of free community college is off the table, but Republicans have stood up for a more affordable higher education, so something positive may come in this light.

It is too early to understand the ramifications of a Trump Presidency, the good and the bad. The reality is that with GOP control of the White House, the House, the Senate, and soon the Judiciary, Congress can do almost whatever it wants if they can agree with one another.

And that will be the challenge within the Republican Party.

As with the Democrats, Republicans do not all read from the same book. Trump will still be forced to create coalitions within his own party, and then, and only then, will they be able to ramrod legislation through Congress. But this will be no easy feat, given than Congress controls the purse strings of the federal government, not the president. Trump can veto, but if he does, he puts himself in a tough situation against his own party.

Whether you voted Republican, Democrat, Independent, or not at all, there is one thing we can all agree on: this will be a very interesting 2017.

Stay tuned, folks.

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The Long & Winding Road: Election Day 2016

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

Today is the day when we can march to the polls, sit back, and finally say “Thank God this brutal campaign is FINALLY over!” If you are still upright and in good health, congratulate yourself for enduring our political version of The Hunger Games.

The US Presidential Election process is unlike any other around the world. While the Canadian and British elections last a mere 8-10 weeks, this election began on Wednesday, November 7th, 2012, the day after the last Presidential Election. On that day, the media started speculating about who would run in 2016 since the second term of a presidential term is always kind of lame duck. In 2013, both Clinton and Trump formed unofficial exploratory committees, and, along with dozens of other also rans, began running in earnest in early 2015. This campaign literally changed how our cable news networks behaved and organized. CNN, once the proud conveyor of world and domestic news, now became a one-issue source of political information, as did MSNBC and Fox. The only respite was the occasional disaster or populous death.

This morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Mike Barnicle said that “This pageant for democracy that we witness today it is truly extraordinary and makes you really proud to be an American citizen.”

I could not disagree more.

This campaign, among all others, has reduced the political trust and process to a shadow of what it once was. Jon Meacham of Time Magazine reminded us that fewer than 1-in-5 voters trust the federal government and that there is a palpable paranoia of trust in politicians. While some say that these long campaigns strengthen candidates and build character, the low-brow mudslinging has weakened the presidency and the respective candidates. The brand of President of the United States has been cheapened, in large part, by a reality TV show star who has little respect for authority, rules, and the law in general.

A lot of people are wondering how we ended up with these two candidates out of 330 million people in the US. It is simple: the system heralded them. They both won their primaries, which also seemed to go on forever. Say what you want, but this is the system we built; the one we deserve.

Given the latest polls and trends, by tomorrow morning the President-Elect is likely to be Hillary Clinton, with some pundits expecting a landslide in terms of electoral votes plus a win in the area of 4-5 percentage points in the popular vote. We will see, because until people actually vote, you can never count on what the voting population will do.

Regardless, the real challenge is what happens starting on January 20 when the President-Elect is inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. At that moment, the President must deal with a divided Congress: a group of 535 elected officials that, Congress after Congress, has managed to conduct a trickle of business that is so important for this nation to run effectively. If Hillary wins, the GOP have already thrown down a preemptive gauntlet to stand in the way of her Supreme Court nominations and other campaign promises. If Trump wins, the GOP will work diligently to mold him to do what they want to do. Don’t think he will run Congress. He won’t. No president does.

I’m not so sure either direction is helpful for the future of this nation.

In the end, nothing is too disastrous, even though, in the midst of a hostile campaign, it seems like the world could end if your candidate does not get elected. That never holds true. The same political system that makes it so difficult to get anything done is also the one that ensures that nothing dastardly or destructive happens. Some may argue, but mostly, this is accurate.

This election is not rigged. There is no voter fraud to speak of. This is just another important election in the history of this nation. They all are.

Democracies are not perfect political systems. They get dirty. Ugly. But they do provide us with an important opportunity to exercise our unique right and privilege to vote our beliefs and conscience. In 20112, only 57.5 percent of Americans voted. That is a shame, because voting is one of the greatest opportunities an individual can have in life.

Please do not waste such a grand opportunity. There is nothing quite as fulfilling as walking out of a voting booth with an “I Voted” sticker on your shirt or jacket. You contributed to our society by a simple vote. It is important.

Regardless of how you vote, do one thing today if you haven’t already:


Enjoy your day.

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The Learning World: A Tribute to Alvin Toffler

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

Alvin Toffler was one of the original futurists, beyond Scotsman Adam Smith, who, a few centuries before, was able to offer, in a tangible way, how economics worked via his “Wealth of Nations.” Toffler was able to view the transfer of culture and society from an industrial revolution to a knowledge society. Toffler passed away only a few months ago (June 27, 2016) and was the author of many top selling books, including “Future Shock” (1970) and “The Third Wave” (1980). I studied the latter during my joint program at Red River College/University of Manitoba Program back in the early 80s. Preparing to be an industrial arts/technology instructor, this was required reading. And it changed me.


Toffler, to me, was the first person to verbalize our new world order and put it in a perspective that made sense. The refrain from his work is simple: knowledge rules. Not coal. Not military. Not even automobiles and manufacturing. Not even politics.

Just knowledge. And those with knowledge will lead the third economic and social wave.

Toffler’s attribution to this construct can be hardly discarded. We are a world of 24/7 news (“news” is used very, very lightly), entertainment, and everything else we can imagine. Information is quite literally at our fingertips.[1]

Toffler wrote about this third wave of technology 36 years ago and he nailed it. Think about this for a moment: Alvin Toffler wrote about the importance of information before there was any type of personal computer (PC, for those who forgot). Before there was a Mac, an Internet, a thumb drive. He did this when the idea of a cell phone was either from Dick Tracy cartoons, Batman, or Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone. The thought of a smart phone or iPad was completely beyond us even in the 1970s. Heck, HBO didn’t show up until 1975 and ESPN in 1979, and they were fledglings at the time. Rarely can we look back at some evolutionist and see that they were right. Nostradamus may be well known about future projections from back in the 16th Century, but he was a nutcase at best who believed in the occult (and no, he did not anticipate JFK!).

Think, for a moment, the changes that have happened in this world over the past 50 years. Fifty years is a miniscule amount of time on our little blue planet. Still, the nature of the technological and societal change during this period far usurps any previous changes. We have moved from analogue to digital in a relative instant, revolutionizing and, to an extent, democratizing the world.

If I go back to my childhood, I remember the first truly instant camera, the Polaroid SX-70. My dad had one, like many dads at the time. It was seemingly unbelievable that we could take a photograph, and then, after a waiting period of 60 seconds, could actually see that photograph and have it in our hands. This was revolutionary.


Skip forward to today.

The only delay we have today in viewing a photograph or video is the millisecond after “press.” Unless you have it on voice activate, then there is no need to even tough the smart phone. Printing a photograph in today’s world is a simple process of either sending the photo to our printer or uploading to the one-hour photo store, which is usually ready in about 25 minutes for pickup.

Many of us remember researching our college papers using both the card catalogues (do you even know what those are?) and microfiche (do you even know what those are?). Quite

simply, the 70s and even 80s were a much, much different world, technologically speaking, than today. Sure, we had the Concorde and some other cool stuff, like Pong, but let’s be real: they all disappeared and only we remain. Well, us, as well as i7 Macs and Windows 10, and a world that is quite literally at our fingertips.

Knowledge rules.

The challenge is that we largely educate people the same way that we did when Toffler wrote his book(s), and similar to when Clark Kerr drafter the California Master Plan, and when John Dewey wrote Democracy and Education in 1916, a book that still was a mandatory read for my doctoral work at GW.

Technology is ubiquitous in education today, but it is poorly harnessed by most. Sure, we use the computer for research in classes, but we mostly use it as a word processor; a fancy IBM Selectric. Online classes now replace what were originally known as correspondence courses. But back then, you sent in your materials via snail mail and waited weeks or even months for feedback. Today it is relatively immediate. Feedback in minutes, hours, and rarely days.


But classroom teaching, beyond moving from an overhead projector to a smart board, is hardly transformative. Technology is used mostly to supplant prior technology, but rarely used to enhance pedagogy and learning.

There are teachers and other educators who are most certainly harnessing the power of technology to enhance their classroom productivity and learning. I’ve seen it. To suggest that it isn’t happening would be disingenuous to the hordes of top-shelf educators who are changing the world. But en masse, it isn’t happening.

In a global society, where two people can receive world news simultaneously from either a rice paddy in Sri Lanka or the 90th floor of One World Trade Center in New York, we can surely incorporate a better utilization of technology in our education systems. Toffler showed us a future light down a dark technological tunnel. And the industrial world followed, creating dynamic uses of digital technology that have transformed our world. Now is the time for the next step: enhancing the global education of all students via these same technologies.



[1] Hey Shireman, is that a correct use of “literally?” Ha!

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Coaching for Student Success

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


I came across a quick article today on Ohio University’s website titled: Are You a Good Coach–or a Great One? At the start, the article says:

“Successful coaches are more than great motivators. They are leaders, mentors, and teachers. They cultivate behaviors in their athletes that drive passion and performance.”

I am always intrigued that at many grade schools, the coach’s office is often right next to principal’s office. A coincidence you say? I think not. Coaches are coaches because they have a level of leadership that not everyone possesses. Coaches are often admired, if not exalted. As former Ohio State University President Gordon Gee said about his football coach, Jim Tressel, during the 2011 debacle where Tressel lost his job, “I’m just hoping that the coach doesn’t dismiss me!”  Tressel, by the way, is now president of Youngstown State University. Coincide? I think not.

People look to others who provide direction. Motivation. Coaching. Enthusiasm. Belief. And to those who do it in a way that is not only professional, but provocative and considerate.

The original article lists eight elements that can make a difference in being a good coach or a great coach. I’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing and editing their list for teachers and others who are responsible for student learning. I encourage you to read the original coaching centric list as well. So here we go:

  1. Lead by example.

People notice when commitment and passion comes from the top. If you want your students to go the extra mile, you need to do the same. Let students understand the work ethic required to be successful. And it starts with you. Students watch what their elders and peers do and take from that. Just because you don’t always see it in their eyes or hear it in their expressions, do not think for a moment that they aren’t watching you. They are always watching you. Set the standard for work ethic; raise the bar; and dare every one of your students to meet those expectations.

  1. Share the game plan.

It is much easier to follow a higher road if everyone knows how best to follow that road. Good coaches and great teachers provide a clear vision of strategy and objective because students and athletes need to know why they are doing what they are being asked. If students understand that algebra is not just about crunching numbers but also to help develop the critical thinking ability, perhaps they’ll push less away from mathematics. If they understand that reading every day improves greatly your possession of language and increase their ability to think critically and communicate to others, perhaps they will read more. Learning isn’t a secret. Pull back the cloak and be honest and open about the game plan.

  1. Coach the person, not just the athlete.

Just as a coach must go beyond the X’s and O’s of skills and strategy, a teacher must go beyond mere academics with students. Teachers and others involved in learning must take an interest in the lives of students and be equipped to address their needs, help them grow, and cultivate a culture of excellence. People learn much better in an environment where they are cared and respected, and that happens when the teacher takes the opportunity to learn more about everyone in that classroom. Teach by example, but also take the opportunity to learn more about who you are teaching.

  1. Communicate effectively.

Back to the X’s and O’s, all of the technical knowledge in the world will not help you if you cannot communicate it effectively to your students. Take time to understand how your students learn and then tailor your instruction accordingly. The best teachers are able to deliver both criticism and praise in a way that’s well received and taken to heart.

  1. Keep your eye on the ball.

Success is a moving target. To stay relevant, you must commit to lifelong learning and continuous improvement. You must also strive to develop at a faster pace than your peers. This world changes at an astronomical rate, even within key academic disciplines. Ramp up your game through professional development so that, if necessary, you can alter the game plan to something that will benefit your students. To improve “them” requires that you improve “you.” This is what lifelong learning is all about. It isn’t just about “them.” It’s about you, too.

  1. Be a game changer.

Good teachers follow great teachers, and great teachers invent new ways to do things. Creativity is key to your success as a teacher, and your ability to remain open to innovative ideas and teaching philosophies is critical to your ability to be a great teacher. Read professional journals. See what your peers are doing. And bring something new to your classroom every day. Back in the old days, we used to joke about teachers and professors who brought their stack of 100 acetate slides in for the overhead projector. You know the ones? Especially those that were quite literally brown colored from age. Well, the same goes for PowerPoint. Although we may not be able to see the brown ting of time on them, we know how old they are. Reinvent your information so that it makes sense to today’s students, not their parents.

  1. Push for peak performance.

Great teachers make learning challenging – physically, mentally, tactically, and emotionally. They plan lessons with great attention to detail and ensure that every lesson provides the optimal environment in which students can reach their full potential.

  1. Stay humble.

Every teacher wants their students to be whomever they can be, but it only comes with the hard work of developing skills necessary to compete in this great world of ours. Our best teachers realize that it is about the student, not the teacher. Remember our role: to help others develop in to the greatest person they can, just like our teachers did for us.


I’ll leave you with a clip from the 1986 movie “Hoosiers,” with Gene Hackman. If this doesn’t say it all, not sure what does.


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A Toast to a Lower Drinking Age


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

On July 17, 1984, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) was a major proponent of the law, and, due in large part to their involvement, the Act was passed with the caveat that if states did not follow the law they would lose 10 percent of their federal highway funds. This forced all states, including some of the holdouts like Florida, to acquiesce and accept the law.

Of the 190 countries with data on this issue, 157 (83 percent) have a minimum drinking age of 18 years old and only 13 have a drinking minimum of 21 years.[1] Joining the US in this policy are the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Kiribati, Micronesia, Mongolia, Nauru, Oman, Palau, Samoa, and Sri Lanka.

There are plenty of statistics that showcase the prevalence and use of alcohol and drugs in the United States and other countries. Proponents of changing the age back to 18 or 19 have a plethora of statistics that illustrate the 21 age limit has not had a dramatic impact on drinking underage, and opponents have their statistics that show the law has had a serious impact on underage drinking and the deleterious harm of alcohol. Both are right; and both are wrong. We can cherry pick our data.

In 2008, 100 college presidents signed a petition to lower the age from the current 21 years of age to 18, citing the problems associated with “under-aged” drinking and other issues on campus. Brit Kirwan, then chancellor of the University of Maryland system and a signer of the petition, noted: “It’s a very serious problem on college campuses, and it just seems to get worse and worse.” The current age, according to the signers, does not decrease drinking on campus. Rather, it breeds the practice of binge drinking.

Four years prior to the petition, the lead signer and President Emeritus of Middlebury College, John McCardell, Jr., wrote an Tin the New York times:

To lawmakers: the 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law. It is astonishing that college students have thus far acquiesced in so egregious an abridgment of the age of majority. Unfortunately, this acquiescence has taken the form of binge drinking. Campuses have become, depending on the enthusiasm of local law enforcement, either arms of the law or havens from the law.

He added about drunk driving and the issue of under-aged drinking:

And please — hold your fire about drunken driving. I am a charter member of Presidents Against Drunk Driving. This has nothing to do with drunken driving. If it did, we’d raise the driving age to 21. That would surely solve the problem.

So, why does this matter now?

One could argue it doesn’t. This has been a sealed deal for over 30 years. And while I have respect for MADD, they used poorly constructed statistics to make their case and leveraged a heavy weight with the President of the United States to enact a law that didn’t truly have a problem. This is not to say that drunk driving and other factors related to youthful alcohol imbibing are not serious. They are. But Mr. McCardell, Jr. was right: if you want to take care of the drunk driving issue, we can. And, if that were the case, we should then consider banning drinking altogether because there are drunk drivers of all ages and people die from alcohol daily at all age categories. We tried a ban back via the 18th Amendment back in 1919, only to have it repealed 14 years later.

I’ll restate the old argument of why have a 21-year old age limit when everything else in the nation is set at either 16 or 18. You drive at 16; you go to war at 18. You can be married at 18. You are tried as an adult at 18, because, by definition, you are an adult. But we don’t let them drink. We force them to do it behind closed doors and arguably force them to easier-access drugs of choice. While I do not have numbers to substantiate this claim, I have heard it through my college-aged kids.

The answer to the alcohol problem was never to raise the drinking age. The answer was in creating a responsible environment for responsible drinking. Some states instituted laws that only allowed beer and wine consumption at 18 and spirits at 21. This provided a ramp to learn to engage in responsible drinking. I think that makes perfect sense.

But to suggest that, for some reason and some very poorly used statistics, our 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old students shouldn’t be allowed to drink on campus and elsewhere in society seems arcane.

Let’s reduce the burden on college campuses and other areas of society and choose to promote responsible drinking.



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The Age Old Question

Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court pose for formal group photo in the East Conference Room in Washington

How old is too old? Not as in, are you too old to still go out for Halloween? But as in: when should someone hang it up? As we continue to extend lifespans, and as the looming economic challenges with social security keep growing, organizations and governments need to deal with the issue of age and support.

In the US, Canada, and many other countries, mandatory retirement was outlawed many years ago, although in the United Kingdom, an employer can eliminate any employee over the age of 65 without reason. Legal petitions to this law have failed in recent years. However, even in the US, certain professions do mandate a retirement age. For instance, airline pilots must retire at 65; air traffic controllers at 56 with some exceptions; and several states have placed mandatory retirement on supreme court justices and other judges. We will return to this specific issue later.

Without doubt, retirement age is a very complex issue because it begs the question of when someone remains competent, at least cognitively, to skillfully do their job. The answer, of course, is: it depends. Some people are incredibly competent in their 80s and even 90s. Others are less fortunate in that they have either cognitive degeneration or physical ailments that make working life more difficult, if not impossible. We are what we are through our DNA, lifestyle choices, and things that just happen to us beyond our control. Let us not forget that many people want to retire, and for some the earlier the better. Others choose to work longer because they enjoy their occupation. Still others continue to work because they cannot afford to do otherwise. This will be an increasing challenge as people live longer, America gets grayer, and people are less prepared, financially, for retirement of any kind.

In higher education, institutions face a challenge because some faculty members hang on for a very, very long time. The value proposition of keeping a post-retirement age professor depends on the institution and the individual, and I’ve seen in many cases where faculty members in their late 70s and on are still being paid at the top scale. The upside is that many of these individuals are exceedingly knowledgeable and welcomed by the institution and students. There is value added. Antithetically, other individuals are less productive and less welcomed, essentially taking space that a younger Ph.D. candidate could have at a fraction of the cost. Ask any recent Ph.D. who wishes to be an academic what it is like getting a job out there. It is a very tough market.

As mentioned, some occupations have mandatory retirements. The question is, should there be more occupations that have mandatory retirements? Let us take the issue of President of the United States, for instance. This presidential election will feature two candidates who are beyond traditional retirement age. Donald Trump turned 70 in June and Hillary Clinton turns 69 in October. If either are elected and manage a two-term presidency, they would be 78 and 77 years of age, respectively, when they leave office. Is this an issue? I think it could be. POTUS 45 only needs to look back to POTUS 40, Ronald Reagan, to see the downside of not having an age limit for presidents. When Reagan was elected president in 1980, he was, and remains, the oldest president ever at 69-years old. Clinton could tie him and Trump would beat him. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, five years after he left office in 1989. However, he was showing signs of the disease as early as his reelection campaign in 1984. According to his son, Ron Jr., “There was just something that was off. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.” It was first noticed that his speech pattern was different. Then he needed notecards to make standard phone calls to people from the Oval Office. There has been discussion about how this impacted the presidency, but we’ll never really know. When Reagan ran for office, he said that he would step down if doctors suggested that he was unfit for office. Well, he was likely unfit for office during his section term. But because he was undiagnosed, and because any slippage was surely held close and confidential, he never stepped down.

About two decades ago, I met with some congressional colleagues of mine. The talk turned to older members of congress, especially about one particular members who would be found wandering the halls and not being able to find his way back to his office. There were many stories of former Senator Strom Thurmond having similar issues. Thurmond was 100 when he left office and died six months later. Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia died at 92 years of age. He was still in the Senate.

As stated, several states have mandatory age limits for supreme court justices and judges, but the US Supreme Court does not have a similar statute. In fact, the actual language of the Court says that justices “shall hold their offices during good behavior,” meaning that they hold their jobs for life unless impeached or resigned. Two sitting justices, Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, are 80 and 83-years of age, respectively, and Stephen Breyer is 78-years old. The Chief Justice, John Roberts, is a youthful 61 and the newest justice, Elena Kagan, is the youngest at 56. The three others are in their 60s. By the way, Antonin Scalia, who died earlier this year, died one month before his 80th birthday.

It has been standard practice to nominate justices in their 50s or 60s to the Court, as it is expected they bring a career of wisdom and experience to the court. The oldest justice ever appointed to the Court was 65 years of age (Horace Lurton), and Oliver Wendell Homes was the oldest ever to serve (90-years old). For interest sake, William O. Douglas served the longest term of any justice, from 1939 to 1975. That’s a lot of seat time.

But when is a Justice of the Supreme Court too old to serve? When does senility or other forced begin to diminish the cognitive ability of the Court?

Again, it is difficult to say. However, for Supreme Court justices and members of congress, and arguably any elected member, I think there should be an upper age level for protection of the offices they serve and the citizens of the country. My number would be 70-years of age, but I think 75-years would be more palatable in a vote, considering that Congress, itself, has an average age of 61 years of age (see the info chart below).

As we know, the timing of a justice to step down from the Court is a supreme (sorry for the pun) political issue. Justices have been known to over-stay their time on the court with hope that a new president of their particular persuasion can be elected to office and nominate their replacement. Currently, the Supreme Court is one justice short with the passing of Justice Scalia, and the GOP-controlled House of Representatives has refused to proceed with President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland due to the election. Garland is a moderate judge who, under normal conditions, would probably be welcomed by Republicans. Now the GOP has to face the reality that if Ms. Clinton becomes the President Elect on November 8, she will likely back-burner Garland and nominate a much more liberal nominee to the 115th Congress in January 2017.

If there was a mandatory age of retirement for justices, then the addition of new nominees would, to some degree, be less political as they would happen when age happens, not when politicians want.


Click on graphic to go to webpage:




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Making the World Seem a Little Worse, Day by Day

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


Earlier today Secretary of State John Kerry made comments on terrorism and the media. Here is what he said:

Remember this: No country is immune from terrorism. It’s easy to terrorize. Government and law enforcement have to be correct 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. But if you decide one day you’re going to be a terrorist and you’re willing to kill yourself, you can go out and kill some people. You can make some noise. Perhaps the media would do us all a service if they didn’t cover it quite as much. People wouldn’t know what’s going on. The fact is we have to stand together, and the United States is standing with Bangladesh in this fight.

John Kerry, August 30, 2016

Thus started a firestorm about his comment that the media perhaps shouldn’t cover terrorism quite as much as they do.

The issue did not make the Washington Post headlines, nor the Washington Times or the New York Times, for that matter. It did not make Fox News. But it was the top story on the right-wing online news outlet The Blaze, founded by less-than-level-headed Glen Beck, and Breitbart News, founded by conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart. And I do expect that you will hear about it sometime tonight on the cable networks and more tomorrow. For now, Larry the Cable Guy is getting more news about his belief that Hillary Clinton as president will end the country as we know it (not making this up). Stick to comedy, Larry.

I do not agree with what John Kerry said, but I know why he said it. I’m sure President George W. Bush wished that Keith Olbermann would not have ended every nightly newscast of Countdown with Keith Olbermann by listing the number of dead personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The point Kerry was trying to make, and did not, was that the piling on of bad news makes people think things are a lot worse than they are and makes it more difficult for the government and law enforcement to do their jobs. People do bad things. In some cases, despicable things. But the world is not a bad place. We are just led to believe it is by the media that will do anything for “Breaking News.” It has become somewhat of a game to watch Wolf Blitzer announce a breaking news story about something that is barely newsworthy at all. Below is a screen shot from MSNBC’s breaking news about a woman who was to come on stage and pull Donald Trump’s hair to prove it is real. The BBC News issued a breaking news story announcing that Justin Beiber and Selena Gomez had broken up (I know, old ‘news’).


This is what we’ve become. The 24/7 news cycle demands something new and important and, well, “breaking” all the time. And the media will manufacture news. This is not a left or right, conservative vs. liberal issue. They all do it because of the news cycle. They need ratings.

The downside is that we are left with news that either makes us feel like we live in a completely sick (to those under 30, this does not mean good) society or that we just do not follow the news at all. And that is not good for society writ large.

In education, we see how this plays out on national surveys. Americans, by and large, think that education, especially public education, is in a desperate situation. However, those same people, when asked about their schools and district, think that things are great at home. See the PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools for evidence. The same thing happens in politics. Everyone, it seems, thinks that Congress is, dare I say, “rigged.” But they continue to vote for the same local member of Congress because “he is okay.” I hate to break it to those people, but Congress is nothing but the amalgam of all those individual votes. It really is not about the presidency; it is about the members, because they make the laws. The President just signs them. Occasionally vetoes them.

In the end, we have too much bad news on the airwaves because bad news gets play. The good news, when you do hear good news, is typically sappy stuff. Watch Headline News with Robin Meade in the morning and you will quickly get my drift. While Ms. Meade is actually very good at what she does, the Former Miss Ohio can quickly make a 180 from a bad, gut-wrenching story to a fun-filled story about someone’s dog. You’ll see the same thing on every news network.

This is what Don Henley wrote about in his song Dirty Laundry (“Get the Widow on the Set”). People actually want to hear the bad things about people. It is our inner Schadenfreude: our inner happiness in the decline of others. This is a well-known psychological phenomenon where our psyche feels better about ourselves via the worsening of situations for others.

The media latches on to schadenfreude with a fury.

We see and hear in every waking moment via our news networks in our political system. During arguably the ugliest political campaign in the history of this nation, vitriol wins every time. Perhaps the leaders understand that, knowing full well that there is no such thing as bad press. Donald Trump continues to prove the point: daily.

I can hardly wait for Election Day, not so this seemingly endless nightmare can come to an end, but so I can wake up on November 9th and hear the pundits castigating about 2020. Yes, the nightmare will continue.

Be nice to one another. What you do may be the only decent thing that someone hears or feels today. 






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Improving Minority Student Participation and Retention in Higher Education.

by Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institutes 

Back in 2005, I was asked by the Colorado Department of Higher Education to conduct a workshop and provide a Q&A on improving minority participation in higher education. This was on the heels of my 2003 Jossey-Bass publication, Retaining Minority Students in Higher Education with friends and colleagues Laura Perna and Ken Redd.

I came across this Q&A by accident this week while doing my semi-annual, semi-neurotic, OCD-infested file cleansing of my 100+ GB dropbox folder. All in all, I think this piece still stands the test of time, given that nothing has really changed in the past decade beyond college getting more and more expensive. I figure this is worthy of sharing with you in an as is condition. I am interested in your thoughts. WSS>


1. What can Colorado schools do to improve minority student participation and retention?

Institutions of all types—two-year, four-year, public, private, and proprietary—can do many things to increase minority student participation and retention, but all require intensive efforts. Rarely does a school improve their service to these students without a series of proactive and entrenched policies and practices.

Let’s first talk about access and participation. If Colorado institutions want a more diverse student body, then they must go out and encourage those students to apply and enroll. Low-income students and students of color won’t just “pop-up” on campus. They must be sought out in middle and high schools. Schools must be encouraged to work with secondary schools and help students understand the importance of a college education and what steps are necessary to make that transition. This is called “outreach,” and can be done on several levels. At the most modest level, institutions can provide information to school counselors targeted toward these students. A more intensive effort involves working directly with schools. Institutions can send ambassadors out to schools. Ambassadors come in the form of alumni, faculty, and students. Institutions can also provide opportunities for students to visit campus. This is an often promising technique that can have a strong impact on students, especially those without educational legacy. By visiting a campus, they see that they can possibly “belong,” a concept important to future success.

Institutions need to work with schools to ensure that students are preparing and submitting applications. Again, these services can be specially targeted toward minority students and others. Institutions can build databases of their local students and provide “push” mailers to get students to consider their options and take the necessary steps toward college.

Once students do apply, are accepted, and enroll, the work gets harder for institutions. Historically, postsecondary institutions apply the “sink or swim” attitude toward students. Professors like to point out that the person on either side of you will be gone by the end of semester. Not comforting, and not altogether helpful to students. I like to put it this way: when institutions accept an application from a student, they enter a legal contract to do whatever they can to support the success and learning of that student. We can argue what this means in real practices or strategies, but the attitude is almost as important as the practice. Institutions must commit to helping students matriculate, acculturate, and develop their learning capacity to meet their goals.

Initially, institutions must learn about each and every student on campus. In order to help students, one must first understand their strengths and weaknesses. Only then can the institution provide appropriate services to help that student. If institutions do that, success isn’t guaranteed. Simply providing services—whether academic or social support—is insufficient. Students requiring special assistance are typically those who do not seek that assistance out. Institutions must be somewhat intrusive in applying services to students. Institutions must initially diagnose students and track students to identify need. Then they must overtly engage the student for services.

The college campus is not a field of dreams. If you build it they will not come. If you provide academic tutoring or counseling, students typically will not attend unless they are identified and strongly encouraged to attend. In some ways, they need to be told to go, which may require policy and enforcement.


2. What role does state funding play in providing college access and success?

State funding plays a bigger role than most of us would like to admit. But because postsecondary education is essentially a state responsibility, it largely falls to the state to provide the necessary resources to open access and support success. Yes, the federal government lends a large hand through Pell Grants and other need- and non-need based programs, but the setting of tuition and provision of other need-based aid programs come back to the state.

The state is also important in launching campaigns to get the message out to all students that college is possible. I was invited to speak at the launch of College in Colorado back in the spring. This type of initiative is exactly the type of vehicle that the state can and should be providing to get this message out. What the state needs to do is continue to improve the message and ensure that Colorado’s most needy students are receiving that message and acting upon it.

Of course, information is not enough. The state needs to expand its outreach effort to ensure that the message gets to those more difficult populations, and this only happens through appropriations and expenditures.


3. Why are Latino and African-American students more price-sensitive compared to white and Asian students?

There exists research that illustrates the cultural sensitivity that certain populations have toward price sensitivity and debt aversion. The same can be attributed to low-income families who have a history of limited resources. Telling a family that college is important when the cost of attendance for an academic year may equal one-half of the entire family income is a reach. How can they possibly do it? For Latino and African-American students, similar reactions exist.

Finances aren’t the only deterrent to these students. We also hear of the pressure on Latino students to stay close to home, or even stay at home. Thus, the thought of going away to college in a more traditional manner is sacrilegious to many families.

These populations, and especially the parents, need to be educated about the impact of a postsecondary education and how that education can literally change lives.


4. Do remedial courses work?  Are they effective?

There is a lot of bad press about remedial education. Truth be told, if our high schools did a better job doing what they needed to do, we wouldn’t have to rely on remedial education. But even so, some level of remedial education needs to be available to students. I know from my own experience: I was a math major in college, but over a year had passed between my final high school math course and my first college calculus course. I needed some retraining to get my trigonometry skills back in tune. While I didn’t take a remedial course, I did have a tutor who acted as my remedial guide.

Several studies have shown that remedial courses are often not useful, but our recent research on Latino students found that certain remedial courses were indeed important to retention. For instance, Latino students who took remedial English courses were more likely to persist at the four-year level. Why? Perhaps because they’re English skill isn’t quite what it should be and the remedial opportunity provides that opportunity to gain the necessary skills to achieve at the college level.

Are they effective? I’d ask the same of all college courses? Why single these out. I believe that all courses can be good or bad. But I think students need access to remedial courses in some manner, whether at the four-year or two-year level.


5. What policies can the Commission adopt to address minority access and success?

As with institutions, the Commission also has to adopt an attitude that is steadfast in support of college access and success for students. States are notoriously poor at staying the course for poor and minority students. When the economy goes sour, states typically pull back on higher education and force more load on institutions, resulting in increased tuition, fees, and other related costs.

A recent cautionary tale shows us the importance of staying the course on college opportunity. Indiana has been a leader in state-run opportunity programs. The Indiana Career and Postsecondary Advancement Center (ICPAC) provides interactive information to students and families. But two years ago much of its funding was cut when political winds starting blowing. I’m unsure why this happened, but they essentially gutted a wonderful program. This should be a strong lesson to Colorado and other states. Just because you want to do the right thing here and now doesn’t mean that those that follow will do the same. Nothing is guaranteed, so do your best to protect the future. From my point of view, the best thing the Commission can do is entrench legislation so this doesn’t happen.

With regard to postsecondary access, longevity is key. Whatever policies are introduced, legislators must understand that these changes take time. It is unlikely that large-scale changes in either access or retention will happen within a year or two. These are complex, systemic problems that require careful planning, buy-in from the education communities, and a strong implementation plan. Garbage in, garbage out. While certain, quick-fix policies may be politically expedient, they aren’t worth their weight in gold.

Throwing money at the problem is clearly not the solution to the postsecondary access and success challenge of students of color. Of course, not throwing money at it is worse. Thus, state funds must be carefully targeted toward the greatest need for the state and society.

Generally speaking, students of color are no different than other students in that they do not go to college for one of three barriers: academic preparation, college knowledge, and ability to pay.

Academic Preparation. I place this first because, quite simply, if students don’t have the academic wherewithal to attend college, the argument is moot. Students must be provided with the tools to think and learn and do. The difficult is that students from low-income backgrounds and often of color have significantly less access to academic resources than more affluent, often White students.

These students are less likely to be taught by qualified teachers and attend schools with adequate resources with regard to technology and infrastructure. In addition, they often live in environments that are not conducive to high-level learning and achievement. Together, these challenges create a major barrier to college preparation.

Thus, state access policy must start with ensuring that students attend public schools that offer a positive learning environment with well-trained teachers. This sounds like a throwaway—reform the public schools—but ultimately the best defense is a good offence. Make the system better and all students will prosper.

This is done by demanding higher standards at all levels of education. Demand better teachers, better administrators, better paraprofessionals, and demand more of students. But to do this, each stakeholder has to know what’s in it for them. The state, in partnership with school districts, must design incentives to make this happen. Teachers won’t get better just because the state tells them to. If there isn’t a direct opportunity for teachers to gain advantage, either in salary, benefits, or other intangibles, they won’t meet the mark. If the state raises the bar without a positive effect, potentially promising teachers will opt for other professions. Equally important is the facility to foster excellence. If the state wants better teachers and schools, then learning opportunities must be made available. Colleges of education and in-service training opportunities must not only be offered, but be of sufficient quality to make a difference.

For students, the problem that states and districts run into is to demand higher levels of academic achievement without appropriate safety nets in place. As with teachers, if states simply alter the graduation policies or college admissions policies without doing the more difficult work required, students will fail to meet these expectations. Some people subscribe to the myth that if students are just held to a higher standard they will achieve that standard. While that works for some students, it doesn’t work for all of them, and perhaps not most of them. Further, if those standards are unrealistic, then students will fail miserably. Consider it this way: if students, especially low-income or students of color, are ill-prepared to begin with, what makes us think that they will make this huge leap without additional resources? In addition to better teaching, they will require tutoring and mentoring to help them come to terms with faster pace and more challenging course work. The state can ensure that resources are available to elementary, middle, and high school in high-need areas to provide supplementary tutoring and instruction. If the state doesn’t have much an outreach effort, maybe it’s time it should.

Knowledge Barriers. Even if students can maneuver the academic hurdles, they must navigate the sea of knowledge regarding life after high school. Most students go to college without a firm idea of what they want to do for a living. I like to quote comedienne Paula Poundstone, who asks rhetorically, “Do you know why grown men ask young children what they want to do when they grow up? They’re looking for ideas!” Well, we leave our students in that type of situation. We expect them to aspire to postsecondary education without a firm foundation of who they are or what they wish to become. We talk much about aspirations as if it this concrete element in the lives of students, but we don’t operationalize it for them. Students must aspire, but to do so they need the tools to make decisions about what they like to do and how that links with the working world.

Career exploration is a trivial pursuit in most schools. In fact, career exploration should be a significant element of the middle and high school experience. By giving students a thorough opportunity to explore careers, they will define their own future and understand why their secondary education is an important vehicle for attaining their personal goals. Thus, career exploration fuels not only aspirations, but student motivation and understanding.

Students also need to become “college knowledgeable.” Understanding careers and futures is one element, but students need to be informed about postsecondary options and linkages. In a recent survey my organization did of Kentucky high school students, we found that high school seniors overestimated the tuition at two- and four-year public institutions by at least 100 percent. National studies show similar results. Students need to understand the true cost of a college education. Equally important is to understand the cost of not going to college.

Students from areas that do not send a high proportion of students to college suffer from low-expectations and low-information about college. We often here stories about the “best” students from these areas—the students who are sure to succeed—who drop out from college and come back to their community a failure. What do students learn? If the so-called best can’t succeed, how could they possibly entertain the thought of success? This attitude is pervasive in low-income communities, which are often populated by people who are Latino and Black rather than White.

These students also come from families that do not have a college history, they live in areas which are not conducive to high academic achievement, and they attend public schools where teachers are either inferior or unsupportive of a student development.

Guidance counselors are important stakeholders for providing information, but often do not have the resources or time to conduct adequate counseling with students and parents. The state government could alter the mandate of counselors and counseling and ensure that students and their parents get the information they need early and often.

This is all to say that “college knowledge,” through continued efforts like “College in Colorado,” is important. But it must be targeted to those who really need the information and support.

Financial Barriers. Many students don’t go to college because they either can’t afford to go or they don’t believe they can afford to go. If adequately prepared for college, some level of postsecondary education is generally available to all students. Pell Grants, Colorado State Grants, supplementary grants, and the College in Colorado Scholarship go a long way to opening the doors to postsecondary education for students. But is it enough? Does it provide a level playing field for all students? Complicating this fact is that access is not a binary concept—to go or not to go. Rather, there are various levels of access. One must ask “access to what?” Does income play a role in who goes to two-year rather than four-year institutions? Private versus public? The state must decide what equality of access means to them and whether this is an important or manageable policy objective.

Further complicating the financial perspective is that many low-income students and families self-select themselves out of the college pipeline because of misinformation view of their postsecondary options. I mentioned our survey findings in Kentucky, and my bet is we would find the same overestimation here in Colorado. That needs to change. Students and parents need to know exactly what it costs to go to postsecondary school in Colorado and how they can fund it.


6. Why are two-year colleges less successful in retaining students, par.?

Mostly because two-year institutions serve a different cut of students. These students are typically older and less traditional than four-year students; they come from lower-income backgrounds; have more “risk factors” associated with them; and have different expectations and goals. Not all two-year students are interested in earning an AA. And those that do, or even aspire to a BA, bring other baggage with them. The risk factors mentioned include having to support their family, inflexibility in moving to attend school, and financial need to attend part time, which is associated with persistence.

Two-year colleges cannot be held to the same standard. Nor can all four-year institutions be held to the same standard across the board. Each institution has to be evaluated separately.


7. Should the focus be on “college for all” or something else?

Politically speaking, yes, the focus should be on “college for all.” However, in reality college isn’t for everybody. Some people are not cut for BA-level work; either because of occupational interest or academic ability. Also, the economy could not assimilate that many BA grads if we were to dramatically increase the yield. This said, the focus should be that every study in Colorado deserves the chance to prepare, go, and succeed at the postsecondary level. That should be the goal. Let students and families make decisions based on the best interest of the student, but the state needs to ensure that EVERYBODY has a reasonable chance of success in meeting their personal goals.


8. How do you expect the reauthorization of the higher education act will affect college access and success?

I think the HEA will have limited impact on access and success. Not much will change; Congress has pulled back on threats to impose legislation to monitor college retention and persistence rates. The programs needed are already in the HEA and will not disappear. What matters more is the appropriation of funds, and that’s a year-to-year deal.


9. How do you balance access with accountability?  That is, should a college admit “risky” students?

The state needs to understand and support the fact that its institutions have different missions and serve diverse audiences. There cannot be across-the-board policy, especially with regard to retention, that pegs everyone at the same rate. That would be inherently unfair. The problem with holding institutions too accountable on the retention line is that institutions may opt for increasing their admissions criteria and closing the door on lesser-prepared students. This is a real problem that is already playing out in at least one four-year institutions in Colorado.


10. Why are private, not-for profit colleges generally more successful in retaining and graduation students of color?

It depends on which private, not-for-profit colleges we speak of. For those with larger endowments, they have the fiscal resources to provide the academic and social resources to support students with need. Additionally, those that are more selective, and many of these institutions reside in that category, “cherry pick” the best students of color.

But there also exists an attitude at many of these campuses of providing hands-on services to students; using peer tutoring opportunities, and ensuring that freshman students receive the services necessary to succeed.


11. How can a school change its campus climate? (CU has had several racial incidents over the past few years, and has a reputation as an unwelcoming environment for minorities.  The institution has hosted several of its own task force meetings over the past few months, so it is keenly aware of its shortcomings–and is sensitive to further negative publicity)

By making it a priority from the campus leadership down. If it isn’t seen as a priority, it simply won’t happen. Second, there has to be buy in from all stakeholders on campus, including faculty AND students. This is a typical change management issue for institutions. But campuses can change if they follow good change management strategies.



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College Brand X, Inc.

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

It seems everywhere one turns these days there is a college or school district advertising for a branding company to help them with marketing. I literally see 3-5 RFPs a week requesting these services, mostly at the postsecondary level.

I find this trend somewhat disturbing on a number of levels. On the whole, there is nothing wrong with branding for colleges and universities, as I will allude to. Everyone wants a nice logo and to establish their presence. What is disturbing, to me, is the hundreds of thousands of dollars that public colleges and spending on branding and marketing to compete with colleges just like them.


Some might say, “well, let the market take care of itself.” There is truth in that. But for public colleges, I do not believe that they should be in competition with each other beyond academic merit. Most public institutions have a regional foothold: most of their students attend from within a 60-mile radius. This marketing push—and you can see it at each and every university in the country—is aimed at trying to (a) pry moderately selective students away from one institution to attend their institution, and (b) to fill seats in their ever mounting effort to increase the size and scope of the institution.

Institutions are rarely satisfied with staying the same size and serving the same constituency as they do today. They want more. There is a lustful ambition in the eyes and minds of institution administrators. I’ve likened this to a Macbethian vaulting ambition in past Swail Letters. The quest for more never ceases.

I would be heartened if there was a quest for higher quality, higher graduation rates, and higher job placement/gainful employment rates. But that’s not what I see. I see a quest to market better than one’s brethren competition to entice students who normally would not apply to your institution.

Why is this a problem? First, it is remarkably costly. Competition in this sense actually drives prices up in public colleges, not lower due to competitive forces. Because these institutions are largely subsidized by local, state, and federal governments, it is not an open, market-based system, as much as administrators would like you to think. It is a fictitious market due to subsidies. Second, the marketing focuses largely on non-academic issues. The football team. The basketball team. The social efforts of the institution. Sure, they market their programs, but sometimes (not always) it seems like an after thought.

James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was once a small, quite “party school.” Decent quality. Twenty years ago total enrollment (HC) was about 10,000 students. Today? 21,500 students with 1-in-4 coming from out of state. Old Dominion University, one of my alma maters, grew from 19,000 to 25,000 between 2000 and 2014. Not as large an increase, but still impressive by any assessment. What is most interesting is the increase in residential students for what was almost exclusively a commuter institution back when I attended in the early 1990s. Today, 23 percent of ODU students live either on campus or in university-sponsored housing.

ODU provides an excellent case study because in 2009, they founded a new football team to play in the NCAA. ODU had not had a team since 1941, but they saw this as an effort to “brand” and market the university. And it worked. ODU has seen enrollments go up, they now reside in the C-USA, and one of their former players, Taylor Heinicke, is a quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. Like many pro teams, ODU is not getting a new football stadium and pouring millions into their program. Due in part to ODU’s football success, I have heard rumors that George Mason University, another university that massified over the past 20 years, is looking at the ODU model and is weighing its options to go for football.

I don’t want to make this a debate about college sports, so let’s bring this back to brand. Brand can be good, but brand can be detrimental with regard to college costs. There are certainly pros and cons to focusing on branding.

What do you think about college branding? I’m interested in your thoughts.

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