The New Dropout Crisis? Not so New

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

The New York Times David Leonhardt, one of the few journalists that I read on a daily basis, published an article this morning on the “new dropout crisis.” The crisis, in this case, is that the national college dropout rate has eclipsed the national high school dropout rate. While I am glad to see the focus on an area that I have studied for over two decades, I do take some issue with this comparison. To begin, it is very true: we have done an extraordinarily poor job in higher education to graduate the majority of our students. Half of students who begin at college of any kind this fall will not earn a degree within six years. That includes two-year and four-year students attending public and private institutions. The causes for this are complex, but we can boil it down to several things, including the arguable beginning of this trend with the Civil Rights Act of 1965 as well as the large subsidies to higher education which helped created the massification (a real word in higher education policy studies) of the system. There are other issues, but these are two very big pieces.


I call the comparison of the two dropout rates a false positive because this has been the case for a long, long time. The data used by Leonhardt, created by Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners, is seemingly incorrect to me[1]. First, it uses IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) data to create the rate, which probably is not the best data source for comparison as it is self-reported by the institution and IPEDS is known to be suspect. Not a bad choice, but perhaps not the best. A superior source may be the US Department of Education’s NPSAS (National Postsecondary Student Aid Study), which I use below. NPSAS is a specially-designed, randomly sampled database from across the country.

Another factor, of course, is the definition of dropout. Dropout means various things, and in higher education we must talk about dropout in the context of stopouts: those students who drop but come back. Leonhardt’s conclusion is correct, of course. Dropouts in higher education is a serious issue and too many students who begin a degree or certificate program will not succeed, typically carrying a financial debt for a piece of parchment they never received. This is serious stuff.

Where the high school dropout rate comes from I am even less sure, because the status dropout rate of 16-to-24-year-olds is only 5.9 percent according to the US Department of Education[2]. So, I don’t trust the numbers from Bellwether to any degree.

What is true is that dropout in higher education has—for much longer than the NYTimes and Bellwether suggest—been a critical problem in our education system. But the reasons for the dropout in postsecondary education is a much different animal than in secondary education. First and foremost, higher education is not a compulsory requirement as is K-12. By law, most youth must go to school until they are at least 16-years of age, and many states have passed laws to increase that age to 17 or 18. In college, students make their own choice to enroll and to dropout. We know the issue is much muddier than this, but people still have choice. Second, there are much different issues associated with persistence in higher education than in persistence in high school. For almost all students, if you go to high school, you will complete high school. The academics rarely get in the way, but the social issues do. People do not typically dropout because they don’t like or can’t do algebra. They dropout because they don’t like school, would rather work, and take really bad advice from people who are ill-equipped to give it to them. People dropout out primary for bad reasons, not academic reasons. I’m a math guy: I can teach algebra to anyone. Anyone! Trigonometry? Um. Less so, which begs the question why we require all students to learn trig anyway (arguably a sidebar conversation for another time). High school, by definition via its graduation requirements, is designed to succeed via minimum levels and expectations. It’s a pretty low bar to graduate from high school, especially in a non-agrarian society.

In higher education, though, there are many factors that impact the ability of students to persist and graduate. First, many students who leave are simply not adequately prepared to be admitted—let alone graduate—from college. Thus, some high school graduates enter higher education do so with very limited academic wherewithal to succeed. It should be no surprise when many of these students stop showing up. If anyone wants to know what the number one indicator of college success is, guess what? It isn’t someone’s race/ethnicity, income, or education legacy. It isn’t where they come from, per se. It isn’t even their intellect or cognitive ability, necessarily (although it can be). Ultimately, the biggest predictor of postsecondary success is the academic rigor of their prior education, as prominently noted by US Department of Education Analyst Clifford Adelman in his “Answers in the Toolbox” transcript study. Cliff, one of the best policy analysts around, passed away only a few weeks ago.

Another looming issue for students is ability to pay. That doesn’t happen in high school. Even with large public and private subsidies, depending on the college one chooses, there is still a high price to pay. Interestingly enough, the pricing for low-income students is better than many people think it is, due primarily to Pell and institutional grants provided to people betow about 150 percent of the poverty level. In most cases, the expected family contribution (EFC) for students falls between $12,000 and $17,000 a year at the four-year level (see below). For low-income students, this amount is actually quite a bit lower, averaging about $3,000 or less per year. Important to note, of course, is that many low-income students who do dropout do so because the unanticipated costs of college that is not covered by grants, such as travel, health care (copays), drugs (not that type!), and even food. The unexpected items push them over the edge and they leave.


SOURCE: US Department of Education, National Postsecondary Education Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16). Data collected and analyzed using PowerStats, W. Swail, May 25, 2018. 

One other note in the NYTimes piece. Leonhardt makes the standard point that the returns to a higher education are large. He’s right. But the echo of this statement gets very stale because it creates a false understanding of why there is an ROI gap. But the returns are declining while graduate (and dropout) debt is increasing. In parallel, the cost of an education is also increasing. It should be noted by readers that one of the reasons that there is such a earnings gap between high school graduates and college graduates is that employers aren’t hiring high school students anymore. And they do so because they can hire BA and other graduates for work that requires nothing more than the skillset learned in secondary school. They could hire high school graduates, but they don’t. As I have written extensively about before, employers use the BA as a filter, without any real thought about the skillsets that they are trying to attract. The assumption is simple: if you bothered to go to college and you were able enough to navigate the system and earn a degree, you can probably do something positive for me. There is nothing wrong with that assumption, because it carries water. But this belief has also propelled the value of college degrees—in particular the bachelor’s degree—to heights that are absurd. About 25 percent of our population has a BA degree and that percent will surely increase in the next quarter century. But 25 percent of the jobs in the US do not require a BA degree. Check my stats from the Bureau of Labor (link above). We simply do not need that many people with BAs. Having one is a good thing. But having too many is a societal problem, too. Ask the BAs who can’t find a steady job or can’t get one that has anything to do with their very expensive (always consider the opportunity cost of not working for 4-6 years) degree. There absolutely should be some level of rationing, by degree and program, in the US, so that we do not overproduce certain graduates. But doing so is a third-rail issue. Who is going to make that decision in America? The Death Panel?

As always, I enjoy comments on these pieces and put them out there for interesting dialogue. I also strongly encourage you to sign up for David Leonhardt’s daily opinion pieces. Always great stuff. And sign up for The Swail Letter, too.

Have a great weekend.


[1] “Seemingly,” because I cannot reproduce the data that is used in the chart. Thus, I am not sure which data sources they actually used, but given that I know most of the data sources available, I have my doubts about the legitimacy of these comparisons.


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Declining Enrollments? Not Such a Big Deal

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

A new report released yesterday by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) reported that undergraduate enrollments were down 1.3 percent from the previous year, equivalent to 231,674 students from the previous spring. The biggest losses were in the two-year public sector, which accounted for over half of the losses (53 percent; 107,393), and the four-year, for-profit sector (33 percent; 67,637). The losses at the four-year public and private non-profit sectors were negligible.

A similar reporting was noted by the NSC in fall 2017, a more traditional measure of postsecondary participation compared with the spring semester. In that NSC report, total enrollment declined 1.0 percent, or 199,179 students. As with the spring 2018 report, about half of the decline was in the two-year public sector and 36 percent in the four-year for-profit sector, with negligible declines in the others.

What does this mean and why does it matter? I ask because people seem to be getting in a tizzy over these reports. Obviously, colleges worry about declining enrollments because it impacts their financial forecasting. For instance, 50 students may not sound like many, but if a private institution loses that many students from one fall to another, the financial impact of those losses could add up to $1.5 million pretty quickly, depending on the institution. And what is the impact of $1.5 million? Depending on the institution, $1.5 million could translate to 20-25 FTE employees. These issues are nightmares for business officers and executives, let alone academic deans.

Although these NSC data are interesting, the overall issue is relatively insignificant in the long-term. In preparation for this Swail Letter, I did a quick check on CDC birth records and the population trend of 18-24-year-olds in the US. There is no serious concern for enrollment worries as they should remain relatively stable over the next decade. My bet is that they will likely increase over that period of time with the aid of a rebounding of the two-year and for-profit sectors.

Still, the question remains: if things are so stable, why are the numbers down? First, let’s put this in perspective: we are talking about a 1.0 to 1.3 percent change, and given the nature of enrollments and the sheer size of the overall student population, these are data “blips.” Numbers vacillate for a lot of reasons, and as some people have noted about this new report, the issues are also about geography and are not steady across the country. Our concern should be focused on when blips turn to trends, and that isn’t happening at this time (ask me next year). Thus, the answer to the question of why this is happening is actually quite simple: it’s the economy.

Every higher education policy analyst understands that when the economy is good, enrollments, beyond the factors of demographics, decline. Why? People are employed and can find jobs. A certain bubble of the population will tend toward postsecondary education and training when the economy is bad and tend toward employment when it is good. Right now, with the economy humming at an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, they are trending towards work. This percentage rate, by the way, is considered “full employment” by economists. As the President would like everyone to acknowledge, the unemployment rate has continued a downward slide since he was in office. And he’s right; it clearly has. Of course, the rate has been on a downward slide since the first year of the Obama Presidency, so one might choose words and data carefully given the nature of the economy versus the power of the office. The graphic below illustrates the trends in long-term unemployment by Administration, first with the Bush Administration, followed by Obama, and then Trump.

Table 1. Number of people in the United States who were unemployed for 27 weeks and over, 2008 to 2018 (in thousands)


SOURCE: Graphic by the Educational Policy Institute. 

Bubble students take quick opportunities in the work force because they can earn money. Many, especially at the two-year level, will choose to leave higher education (or not enroll) and re-enter the workforce because they are employable due to a strong economy. This perspective would also make sense in the for-profit sector, which also enrolls people who are on the bubble of employment.

Interestingly, the NSC also reported that the number of adult students (above 24-years of age) was also down. The argument above also would forecast this happening, too.

In the end, let’s keep a positive outlook. The economy is good. People are working, albeit we know that the people who are working and receiving benefits is a grave concern in the US. Take a quick look at the graphic below. The red dots and lines represent part-time workers in the 25-54 age range and the blue the full-time workers. The combination of the Great Recession and the introduction of Obamacare spiked the number of workers who moved from full-time to a part-time status, in large part because the economy was unsettled as well as employers knee-jerk reaction to reduce employee hours so they wouldn’t have to provide health care as a benefit. Only now do we see that the economy is strong enough that the trend is reverting back to pre-Great Recession numbers. That is a good thing.

Table 2. Part-time versus full-time employment ratios between 2007 to 2018 (April) for workers between the ages of 25 and 54.

second chart.jpeg


Declining enrollments are always a challenge for colleges and policymakers. But, ultimately, we must remember what we are here for, and that is to provide an education for those who desire and need it. Our job is not to admit people who actually want to be doing something else and we shouldn’t promote something behind the curtain when some potential clients already know what they want to do and how to get it. If and when those people are ready, we will be there for them. But if they want to work, that’s a good thing for them and the nation as a whole.

For right now, the data presented suggest that the issue of declining enrollments is much ado about nothing.

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Cliff Notes

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

Cliff Adelman passed away last week. To the uninitiated, Cliff was arguably the best data analyst on student issues that this world has ever seen. This is not an overstatement nor hyperbole. I’ve met most of them around the world at some point and he was leaps above any of them. If you don’t know Cliff, you know his data. His work was that omnipresent in the education arena.

Cliff was important to many of us data wonks. More than anything, he taught me what stories could be told from a bag full of data. He played Jeopardy with data (literally). He spoke of the “toolbox” and how students “swirled” and how business falsely used the BA as a filter, something I talk about to this day.


What separated Cliff from everyone else was his devotion to the data. He knew “the data,” of course. Perhaps he knew data more than some people. I’m not sure. I spent time with Cliff at countless conferences and meetings, and after a few beverages, he would be head back to his room and run more numbers for the next day. As others knew greatly, he was difficult to argue with—even if you were pretty sure you were right—because he had such a command with the data that you figured he had something on you. And he was confident, which totally made you feel you were doomed. Cliff and I were pretty much always on the same side of the argument, so it was never an issue that I can remember between us. He was on the students’ side. Cliff used data to tell stories of students in a hope to influence public policy and the “business” of higher education. In “Answers in the Tool Box,” his thematic piece from 1999 using data from the High School and Beyond (HS&B) database, he let us know that what mattered most with regard to higher education access and success, more than anything else, was the rigor of prior learning: enrolling and excelling in the most challenging courses during high school paved the way to future success, regardless of race/ethnicity or income. That was something that might have been inferred before, but these data, based on transcript data that he fought long and hard for at ED, told us definitively.

In 1988, not so long ago, Larry Gladieux and I had the privilege of having Cliff spend six months with us at the College Board for an Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) assignment. We were all excited about it, and it is where he did most of the work on “Toolbox.” He also laid the groundwork for his analysis of job ads where he noted the discrepancy between the skills employers desired and the inflated level of education they required. We were all excited to have Cliff hang out with us for half a year. In reflection, however, we never really saw Cliff very much. He was always out talking to be people or doing his analysis. That, again, was Cliff. He did his work.

Many of us spoke on panels with Cliff throughout our careers. If you saw Cliff in the audience at a session, there was a question coming. And it would be a short question led by a five-minute oratorio building the foundation for the question. And if the receiver of the question wasn’t listening with intense focus, he or she was dust. Cliff took no prisoners. He wasn’t rude about it, but he would be all over someone if they gave an answer that had no credence in it from an empirical standpoint. Numbers rule (as they should), anecdote does not. But as someone said this week on Facebook, we all learned to speak before Cliff, not after him. This, of course, had a double-edged sword. If you went before Cliff, he could critique your analysis live before he even started talking about his content. If you went after, your 20-minute presentation was squashed to three due to a bit of “overtime” on his part. Cliff could talk. And talk.

When changes happened at the College Board back in 2000 in the form of Gaston Caperton, the former West Virginia governor who became the CEO at the Board that year, a bunch of us were suddenly unemployed. When the news hit the wire back in late January 2000, Cliff immediately had me meet with his wife, Nancy, over the bridge in Rosslyn at SRI International. She also was an education researcher and she hired me on the spot. So, I owe them both personally and professionally for the opportunity and don’t think I ever gave them the proper “thank you” for that. Thank You. Both.

My first boss back in Winnipeg hired me as a teacher because I was a musician. He hired almost all musicians for “shop” teachers because, as he said, “Musicians were mathematicians.” There was a connection between the music and the technical. This perfectly describes Cliff, too. He was an excellent piano player and he loved to play. He would bring his folder of music to conferences and, if there was a piano, it was to be played. As a piano player myself, I loved this about Cliff. I remember playing the grand at the San Diego Hilton at the very end of ConnectED 2000 when people were filing out, and Cliff gave me a wink. A page from his catalogue.

There is much more to tell, but this was difficult enough to write with all the “humidity” around here. I will miss Cliff. We all will, even if you never knew him. #cancersucks.



Thanks to Nick and the rest of the Adelmans for putting up the wonderful Facebook celebration. Many of us never knew Cliff had dark hair. Or the Speedos. 

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The Nexus of Tuition Discounting and Federal Funding of Higher Education

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

A new study by NACUBO says that half (49.9 percent) of the revenues from tuition and fee charges at private, not-for-profit institutions of higher education are used to discount the sticker price of a college degree at these institutions. The lesson from NACUBO is that students and parents must look at the discounted price—not the sticker price—when making a decision on where to go to school.


NOTE: This is NOT an advertisement!

And herein lies the problem. When the pricing formula in higher education requires a college education to understand it, it probably isn’t the best marketing system in the world. Unless, of course, institutions prefer obscurity rather than transparency in selling their product. I’m not so sure that is the case, but it could be argued from a business perspective that complexity in numbers equals higher enrollment to some degree. While an angle may be that discounting actually helps low-income students (it does) and others who could normally not afford these private schools, the real angle is that the system is preposterously designed when it requires a discounting program to undercut their actual printed tuition, fee, and room and board costs.

We don’t see this at the publics to near the same degree, of course, because their financial systems are different due in large part to the fact that they receive large direct state subsidies that significantly impact their public prices. As we will see, the privates do receive other subsidies in the form of federal grants and other funds. Without these funds, only a fraction of the privates would be in operation today. The most exclusive/selective, heavily-endowed schools would remain for two reasons: (1) they have the resources to provide free or reduced-price education to most of their need-based students anyway; and (2) they could fill their seats with full pays regardless if they wanted or needed. (see this link for information on the largest endowed institutions in the US and beyond).

But for the approximate 1,600-plus private, not-for-profit institutions in the United States, most rely on Pell Grants to help lower the burden on students and families. From there they then discount their tuition.

If readers don’t quite follow how institutions use a discount method, it really is an extra level in Pell Grant, although not always to the lowest-income families. Consider that an institution ends up with a pool of resources from their tuition and fee charges. With this anticipated, formula-driven pool of expected revenues, they are then able to redistribute the wealth to a few different populations. The first is lower-income students and families (need-based) who could not possible attend without a lower price. The second is for exclusive students that they want to entice to their institution through special institutional grants and scholarships. A third population are the legacy students whose parent or family had attended. The discount rate and final cost of attendance (COA) can only be provided to a student when they have applied to the institution and applied for financial aid via the FAFSA. Thus, many students actually self-select themselves out of certain institutions because they refer to the sticker price as the real cost of education. Rarely, and likely never, is the sticker price remotely accurate for need-based students.

This is how the financial aid business works in higher education and why the college search process can be so mind-blowing for families. The issue of discounting is complex because it can be argued, in principle, in a number of ways. First, if you believe in reducing the cost for low-income families at more prestigious (sometimes), private, not-for-profit institutions, then the idea of redistribution becomes a welfare-style program. The Pell Grant is, by definition, a redistribution program, and so is providing a “discount” to a large degree. However, if you believe that the cost is the cost and it should be transparent and factual while letting other Pell-like programs take care of affordability adjustments, then it comes across as an unfair system, especially for the more affluent who are ultimately bankrolling the redistribution process.

How we deal with this issue depends on which viewpoint you have. If you believe in the former, then you probably just live with the opacity of the true cost of a higher education at these institutions because at least you are on the receiving end of the redistribution. However, if you support the latter, then you probably want to remove discounting to a large degree and pay what you feel is appropriate, not a formula-driven method that will work against you every time.

In reality, public two- and four-year institutions receive the most Pell Grant funds available to the higher education system. In 2015-16, two thirds, or 69 percent, of Pell Grant funds went to public institutions of higher education, compared with 15 percent going to private, not-for-profit and 16 percent to for-profit institutions.[1] In most cases, public institutions receive a higher percentage of available federal dollars for student aid than private, not-for-profit institutions do. However, it is important to note that this sector takes up a significant portion of the distribution depending on the type of aid. According to the College Board[2], private, not-for-profit institutions take up 41 percent of Federal Work Study funds, 50 percent of Perkins Loans, 26 percent of Direct Subsidized Loans, 37 percent of Direct Unsubsidized Loans, 42 percent of Parent PLUS Loans, and 67 percent of Graduate PLUS Loans.

Thus, the private, not-for-profit sector, together with the private, for-profit sector, take up a considerable amount of public taxpayer funds that are used to help students go to college. An argument could be made for, and against, moving those funds to public institutions where the costs of providing an education are less expensive, in most cases, than at private institutions. The one argument is that institutions playing the discounting game should be limited in their access to public funding. True, they do not receive direct federal support except in federally-funded research but do receive federally-funded need- and non-need-based grant and loan funds. The need-based funds are supplied by taxpayers; the non-need funds supported by repayments from students and families.




I expect that most people do not support the action or conclusion of limiting federal funds to private institutions. To be fair, private, not-for-profit institutions have provided great expertise and knowledge to the world, let alone the US. But how much public support for a private enterprise is appropriate? Personally, I do not know the answer to this question, but I do know that sometime in the future we need to address it.

Regardless of how the question is couched, there is something inherently wrong with the massive discounting process we see at the private institutions. Again, most discounting is for the right reasons. But we should question whether there should there be discounting at all. In the end, discounting confuses the system and its users; makes the financing of a college degree difficult and obscure; and potentially misappropriates public funds.


[1] Author’s calculations using IPEDS Data Center (April 30, 2018).


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The Texas College Dilemma: How Big? How Much?

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

The San Antonio Express-News wrote an opinion yesterday on the expansion of higher education in Texas. Senate Bill 828, which failed earlier this year, would give authority to expand higher education campuses to meet the growth and needs of the state.

As noted by the state’s higher education commission, Raymund Paredes, building new facilities alone will not solve the higher education challenges in Texas. In Paredes’ testimony before the Senate Higher Education Committee on March 21, 2018, he suggested that constructing new educational buildings while failing to meet the basic financial needs of colleges and universities through public funding could impact the quality of higher education in the state. And he’s correct.


The issue facing Texas is either playing out now or will soon in many states where populations continue to expand. Higher education pushes hard on the demand curve, while state support either remains stagnant or regresses, depending on state.

The primary question for Texas and other states about expansion is simple: what for? The cost of building higher education, including physical plant, plus programs and staffing, is tremendously expensive. States need to analyze what it is they are building and what the future returns are of that public investment. Public higher education has expanded for many reasons over the last 75 years. Some of it was due to incentives provided via public policy. For instance, the GI Bill, the Pell Grant (BEOG), and state subsidies to keep tuition in check. All of these have an impact on demand. Add in the public sentiment and the overuse of data that illustrates the returns to a higher education, and we realize the large trends in enrollment since the 1970s.

Since the Civil Rights Act of 1965, higher education has largely been held as a right and as an access issue, especially and appropriately for populations that have been historically underrepresented in higher education, including students of color, those from low-income backgrounds, and students with disabilities. In return, and with the expansion of the community college system, the bar for enrollment has significantly lowered. In fact, all community colleges and many four-year institutions are open-enrollment institutions: that is, there are no significant academic barriers to attendance beyond completion of basic GED requirements.

This is not a debate about the virtues of these public policies. It can be stated unequivocally that these policies have helped millions of students over the years. However, the reality is that these policies have considerable costs associated with them. Higher education in the US is very expensive compared to the rest of the world because it has the most leniency. It is a redundant system, to a degree (no pun intended), where students have second and third and fourth chances if they want. The growth of the for-profit industry has relished on these tertiary desires for a degree.

To note, the importance and dynamics of degree attainment have been pushed to hyperbole by the higher education sector, politicians, and employers alike. “Earn a million more than a high school diploma” is a popular advertising soundbite. And many people who earn a BA or higher do, in fact, earn much greater returns. But many people do not. That is the nature of an “average.” Half do; half don’t. In truth, the returns to a BA have flatlined over the past two decades. Only the professional degrees are still experiencing increasing returns, while the return for certificates and associates degrees has decreased. Understandably, there are stories on either side of the argument for all returns to a degree. But when public dollars are compromised, or at least required, to subsidize the system, it is time to take careful stock of the situation and return to the question: what is the purpose of a higher education, to the individual and to society, as a whole?

Although taxpayers and citizens alike will not necessarily like it, higher education, as we know it, will change dramatically in the future. The mission of higher education is a double sword or standard for most institutions. Most missions focus on the importance of serving community and providing opportunity for all, but the truth is that our systems will need to be further filtered by academics and other variables to ensure that those who enroll have a legitimate chance of success. The experiment with open access has been fruitful and we have learned much in the past 50 years. However, our fiscal capacity to keep the doors “open” for all students has hit the fiscal wall. States are either unable or unwilling to support the rising costs of higher education, and that, in the end, impacts those on the lower rungs of opportunity more than any other population subgroup.

For Texas, as well as others, there will have to be more specific analysis to fully define—in realistic terms—what graduates they need for society. Higher education will—and perhaps needs—to become more European: it must start limiting the number of students in particular programs and fields and not keep floodgates open in the name of “equity.” There must be some calculus involved in educating those that can fulfill new jobs and not over-qualify and overeducated people for jobs that simply will not be in existence.

This is not easy work, and the opportunity for argument is large. There will be winners and losers, but there becomes a financial reality for higher education and taxpayers alike: how big a system can we afford? A second is more important: How big a system do we need?

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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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