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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The Fallout of Brexit: An Omnimous Future for the UK

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

After a long night, the results are in and the world woke up surprised. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union after 43 years of membership, shaking global economic markets and the financial stability of the UK. The “leave” campaign endured by a vote of 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent, in a surprising reverse of what polls suggested in the days leading up to this, only the third referendum in the history of the UK.

The impact of leaving the EU will be enormous and has already begun. By this morning, Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation, giving additional instability to weak Parliament. Northern Ireland is already murmuring about the possibility of joining the Republic of Ireland to keep in the EU, and Scotland, which overwhelmingly voted to remain, is already in talks of a new referendum to secede from the UK. All in a night.

If that isn’t enough, in the few hours since the markets opened up in Britain, the pound has lost 11 percent of its worth (by 7:13am ET) and the London FTSE 100 has fallen precipitously by 8 percent. The Dow Jones dropped 2.7 percent in advance of the opening bell, and the S&P 500 and Nasdaq by 3.5 percent. It is expected that those will fall when the bell rings at 9:30am ET.

So, who voted to leave the EU? According to YouGov, a UK-based polling group, those who voted to leave were older, less affluent, and less educated than those who voted to remain in the EU. Not much of a surprise, as uneducated citizens typically swing towards more radical movements. Sound similar? This is the same demographic as those supporting the presumptive Republican nominee in the US—Donald Trump. This is “Joe-the-Plumber” land we are talking about here—people who are voting who may not always comprehend the complex implications of their vote but are frustrated enough to do so.


The vote skewed older probably because some of the older Brits would like to regain their independence from a Europe that has, in their opinions, provided millions of foreigners on UK-soil over the past several decades. The pro-Brexit group led by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is guided by Nigel Farage, a Xenophobe whose primary interest is “taking back” the UK via shutting down immigration. Sound familiar?

UKIP Posters in support of Brexit



We cannot fully understand the larger impact of the Brexit vote in the medium and short term, but it is likely that the UK, as we know it, has reached its breaking point. A century ago, the British Empire controlled one-fifth of the world’s population and a quarter of its land mass. Today, it has shrunk to 64 million and 1.2 percent of the total land mass. At approximately 5am UK time this morning, it shrunk, politically, to a blip on the global political map.

Brexit won because people have an intense distain for politics, are tired of considerable economic challenges, and worried about public safety with regard to immigration. Again, the same worries that many—perhaps even a large majority—of Americans hold. But retreating toward isolation is not the solution. Thomas Jefferson famously posited that an educated citizenry is vital for a free and democratic nation. Today, we have politicians that force non-truths on citizens about what is real and what is not, leading them to vote disingenuously for a reality that does not nor can exist if one wants to be part of the global dialogue.

Do not misconstrue my words or intent: this is not about GOP vs. Democrats. It is about individual politicians, the quest for power, and the willingness to do anything to be elected or win a referendum.

The end of the UK began in earnest last night. How the world chooses to deal with an isolated Britain will unfold over the next several years.

In the end, Jefferson was right and education remains the only salve for our woes. If there are any red flags out there about the value of education and the impact of a lower education, we have them in the US and Britain.




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Monster: How Higher Education Continues to Reach New Lows

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

At a time when many of us are (consistently) questioning why higher education costs so much comes a report that the University of Cambridge is implementing a $332,000 doctoral degree in business. As reprinted in, Cambridge is planning on a new four-year doctor of business for October 2017. I am not sure why anyone would want to earn a doctorate in business, per se, since going to school for that long a period is almost antithetical to what “business” is about, but why digress with a thoughtful question? The article reports that the degree is aimed at senior leaders and expects classes of one to two students per year. That’s a pretty good student/instructor ratio, I’m thinking.


Before I, or anyone else, criticize this move by such a prestigious institution, it is worth understanding that other similarly prestigious institutions have been doing something similar for years via MBA programs. Only a few years ago, Montreal’s McGill University (read my Swail Letter on McGill from 2011) raised its MBA tuition to $79,500, a rise of 90 percent from its previous charges. The Fuqua School of Business at Duke charges $63,600/year. Harvard MBA? $64,000/year. Harvard’s estimate for total cost of attendance is $102,100 per year.

And those examples only represent the MBA programs. The “Executive” MBA programs are the real collectors of wealth for institutions. At Fuqua, the executive MBA—a relatively short-term program—is $135,000. Their “weekend” executive MBA is $122,500 and involves alternating weekends over the course of four terms across 19 months. The very prestigious Executive MBA program at the Wharton Business School (University of Pennsylvania) is a measly $172,200. At Harvard, I’m not sure what the cost is, because on their “Fees, Payments, & Cancellations” they talk about all of those things—except for the fees and payments. I am sure that is a simple oversight on their part.

So why do these institutions do this? Well, for several reasons, with the first and foremost being that—quite simply—they can. These schools are crystal clear on who they are and what they can get away with. On the philosophical side, these are very well-known universities that develop some of the world’s most influential business and science people. They are selling not only seminars with some of these influencers, but, in reality, access to an ultra-select network of some of the world’s most elite thinkers and doers. These institutions are banking on their reputation and the reality that there are people that will pay almost anything to get the imprimatur of a Harvard, Duke, or Cambridge. It is a model that works.

The problem with this practice, beyond the obvious selling out of higher education, is that there is an element of moral corruptitude to it all. Instead of living the philosophy of open access, these institutions have shifted the other way, becoming even more exclusive and shutting the doors to people with financial need, which, in these cases, would be almost “everyone.” Trust me, if you have the wherewithal to pay the tuition fees at these institutions, you would not need to go.

So who does enroll in these programs? Extremely well-positioned, high-level employees whose companies are glad to pay the hostile fees in exchange for an entrée to a very exclusive fraternity. Individuals never pay these fees. Corporations do.

But the problem isn’t that these institutions run these programs and trade off their imprimatur in the name of free-market enterprise. Rather, it is the impact on other institutions at a secondary level. Those schools who are not quite at the zenith of the higher education world but are still extremely selective and high cost. They look at these institutions and programs just as a younger brother looks to his older brother. They want to be just like them!

So they start their own high-cost executive programs. William & Mary has one that costs about $92,000. The University of Maryland? $117,000. The University of Texas at Austin? $113,000. George Mason University? $81,600.

A lot of dough.

And this is the monster we have created in higher education. Higher education, writ large, has become the manifestation of a Macbethian drive for more. They all want to be like the one above them, where fundraising is the pinnacle of activities and student service is among the lower rungs of priorities. Is that a broad brush to use for all of higher education. Sure. Guilty. But for our four-year institutions, at a minimum, this is the name of the game. More.

Let’s be clear: all of these institutions are supported, in part or by large, through taxpayer funds. These funds come either through direct government subsidy, student financial aid, or research and development funds from government contracts. An upcoming Swail Letter will talk about why we need to consider focusing public funds on public institutions, instead of forcing those same institutions into the lions’ den with the highly-selective, private institutions.

But this trend that pushes higher education into vastly different spaces based on money is disturbing. It makes higher education “dirty,” to a degree. Greedy to a large extent. Higher education, in the end, is about the public good. Some would like to argue about the “business” of higher education, but in the end, the ROI of higher education should be measured on how much public good an institution returns for the public investment that is extracted. Trustees and other stakeholders, including elected officials, should look very carefully at what institutions are doing.


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Searching for a Beacon of Light

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

I have been in this business for a long time. I always said I would never be like “them.” Them, of course, were the stewards of the business. The old timers. Those with letters. Those with titles.

It was not that I did not want those titles. I did. Come on. I still do, although limited because I really do not pine for those morning board breakfasts, lazy lunch meetings, or fancy-pants dinners. I am much too lazy for that. It gets in my way of golf, tennis, martinis, and, well, Facebook. Yeah, it’s true. I need work.


What I did not want was to be was one of those “old guys” who did not think anything would or could change. You know, the geriatrics, of, well, at least “50 years old,” that thought they knew everything and poo-pooed on everything. “No, it could never happen.” “We saw that before.” “Forgettaboutit.” “Never happen.”

Well, the years are screwing with me and part of me feels like that’s what I have become.

I am an over 50 guy. Born of the 60s. I grew up with great music of the 70s and came of age during the wondrous period of the 80s. We were Gordon Gecko. You know my time and my music. Probably know my vibe. I have been around the education industry for 30 years, dare I say. I have been through open classroom (jeez… I still think that was about the worst thing I have ever seen, but whatdoIknow?), Francais Immersion (I did come from Canada), site-based management, and even something called Charter Schools.

In parallel, I have seen and encountered tuitions rises to such extremes that families simply cannot afford them and are putting their retirement accounts at risk to provide for their kids. I know. I am one of them. And I am one of the fortunate ones. I have seen colleges get greedier about what they “need” to fulfill what students’ “needs” and what their parents “require.” It’s dismal. Pathetic.

In the end, I sit as one of “them.” I am grayed. Not just my hair. But my attitude. I admit it. I just think the entire system, of politics, of education, and certainly, of ethics, is… shit.

That is about the most positive way I can think of it. I have an entire spiel about how the American society is going downhill. We, as a society, want everything and do not want to pay it forward; rather, we want to owe it forward to our kids. We are, without doubt, the most selfish society of existence. That, my friends, is tremendously sad. And while I will not digress, Congress has a whole lot to do with it. Both sides of the proverbial aisle.

The real question is where we go from here? We bear children who are completely neutral to their new world outside the womb. They are innocent. They have done no wrong. They are legislated by their parents and by their parents’ situations. And while we do far more good than bad, we are barely credible on average for millions of students, and especially for those who are low-income and disabled. I rarely worry about the affluent. I think carefully and often about what we do for those who are poor as well as the middle class, who are destined to join their brethren in the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Just watch.

As you read, you can clearly see how this dialogue can spiral downwards quickly. But that is not the point. The point of this Swail Letter is to find the light in the tunnel; the indices where no indices can be found; a pathway where barriers seem present.

So, what do we do? Where do we go?

It’s quite simple, in fact. For me and my “period” people, it is important that we continue to vamp on the issues that we know excessively about. We have real knowledge about real things. These always matter. Never depart too much from us gray hairs. We actually know what we are talking about, and we bring history with us. Hell, we grew up with Lincoln, for Christ’s sake.

But the real window for opportunity in the future does not reside in us, but in the crystal voices of society’s youth. Those who know no boundaries and have limited restrictions; those who live in a different world than from which we were generated. I consider myself well versed in technology, but I am not borne of this generation. It is not the same cloth that I resemble.

So it comes down to the sunrise of our youth. Not meaning ours, but those that we have created. The ideas sprung from those who have different frontiers; different interests and goals. Not to make this political, because I’d rather not, but I must admit that I like watching the videos of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. I cannot and will not say anything about his politics, because he is too new and I do not want to digress. But his attitude is what I am referring to. He is about doing things. Making people be “better.” Will he? Who knows. Right now, people like him. But politics comes about policy. People loved his father for similar reasons. His dad, former Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Elliot Trudeau, had this way of “being.” I saw the father in my high school when I was a student and he was fighting to get back his Prime Ministership. I did not think too much of him, but I am pretty sure I was the single person in that Vincent Massey Collegiate audience who was similarly reticent that evening. And yes, they did break the fire code that night.

Through the digression, the way we turn around education is having people—our youth—come up with different ideas of how to do things. The reality is that beyond some technical know-how, we have not really done a whole lot educationally during the past century. We are still didactic and programmed. Not all a bad thing. That is how we need to learn sometimes; oftentimes.

John Dewey taught us over a century ago about the importance of active learning. We learned it. And then forgot it. We regressed over the years because industry and business forced us to. They told us that we needed to learn more about X’s and O’s and less about # and¯(and the first one isn’t a darn hashtag…). Dewey was the father of active learning and we have not lived up to his exaltation. It is a shame, because everything we know about learning steers us toward his legacy. We learn by doing. We learn by having fun and enjoying the process. We learn by not even knowing there is a process.

Instead, we’ve fallowed in accreditation and testing and credentialism and bureaucracy: the four horsemen of modern society. I obviously remain an example of that anachronism, as evidenced by my use of the term credentialism, which apparently is not a real word according to, well, Word. Just sayin’.

I have read and I have heard about millennials and their interest in working with societal issues. I am not so sure those outcomes have actually transpired, but it remains a good narrative. I would like to have that one in my repertoire. But it is the narrative that needs to push the needle toward—not reform—a complete new way of doing things educationally.

I do not buy into everything the Finnish say about their Number One education system, but I have talked with Pasi Salberg and others, and there are some things we need to learn quickly if we have a chance to truly rejuvenate learning in North America.

Mostly—and I repeat—learning needs to be fun. If it is not fun, it is an endurance. If you have ever had the opportunity to run a marathon or half marathon, you know it feels great when you cross that finish line. But let us be truthful: it sucks beyond hell while you are doing it. Learning should not be like that. It should not be 13 years of “suck” to get where you feel like it is good. Even more depressing, when high schoolers actually graduate, they do not feel it is good; they just think they have “done time.” What type of education is that?

I know so many families and parents—and particularly dads—who nail their kids and force them to learn. Believe it or not, it actually works. Not good practice, though. We should not need to do that. Instead, we must create a system where learning happens via “fun” in school. When we have fun, we learn. I’m not saying it is always fun, but learning needs to have an essence of wonder or amusement or fascination or excitement. Perhaps that needs to be the new Four Horsemen. This is where learning lives.

I may be gray, but I am wonderous. I am fascinated. I am particularly amused and I want someone to excite me about what comes next.

Excite me.


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Now that the SAT has been revised… let’s revise how we use the SAT

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

Two days ago, more than a quarter million students around the country sat down for the inaugural debut of the newly revised SAT. The College Board had promised a new SAT to be more representative of their prior learning in school. Traditionally, the ACT is a test that is very reflective of school-based learning, whereas the SAT was broader and more abstract. For instance, while the ACT would ask very specific questions about academic school content, the SAT relied heavily on strategies such as analogies, which would ask the test-taker if they understood the relationship between a set of words. It is argued that students who had taken Latin in school had a unique advantage for this section because of their knowledge of root words.


As the market more recently moved toward a common-core driven alignment, and as the ACT continues to eat into the College Board’s ownership of college entrance exam (remember that the College Board’s original and legal name is College Entrance Examination Board), the Board felt pressure to revise the test. In fact, to do so, they hired former Senior Vice President of ACT, Cyndie Schmeiser, to head up the revamp.

This morning, the Chronicle published an article by Eric Hoover complete with tweets from students about their new SAT experience on Saturday. Here are some of their comments (#3 is my personal fav):

  1. Never getting into college after that #SAT.
  2. Offing myself is a valid option after that test.
  3. I wish the math section would have at least taken me out to dinner before screwing me.
  4. Can u say clown college #sat.
  5. What the in the hell was that #sat.
  6. My brain is fried.
  7. SAT test essay optional … Do you really wonder why #Trumpocalypse is upon US? Last math section was worse than Trump … #SAT.
  8. My son just came in and said he got destroyed by the new SAT. #sat #hate.
  9. There’s a special place in hell for the person responsible for creating the calculator inactive portion of the #SAT.
  10. Math teachers set us up for failure #sat.
  11. it was terrible & not an accurate measure of anyone’s intelligence. I’m tired of paying $50 to prove I’m smart.
  12. Time management was difficult for me, i knew the answers but for some, i never got the chance to fill them in.

No one likes taking a test. An no one likes sitting for 3-4 hours for a test, either. But that’s what these animals are. The truth is that these tests do a good job of separating users by test-taking ability: those who take tests well and those who don’t. It does a medium-level job trying to determine ability to succeed in college. And it does an outstanding job in stressing out our 16-17 year olds.

So we now have a new SAT test. Shouldn’t we then review how we use and administer it?

The student who said s/he is tired of paying $50 to prove that s/he is smart has a valid point. In reality, if we truly hold to the ideals of the Common Core (by the way, stay away from any politician who supported the core and not opposes the core; they are opportunists at best), the end of high school course work and course-level examinations (if standardized) should be sufficient to supplant college-entrance examinations. This is an important piece of the common core: that it is “common” and standardized, to a large degree, so all students are learning the same core information. Thus, they can be tested on it, too.

So is our focus rightly directed at specially-constructed tests like the SAT and ACT, or should we be focused on standardized tests that focus explicitly on the high school curriculum? I have no problem with the SAT or ACT. They are one of the world’s (literally) best-made tests, designed by psychometricians in New York, Princeton, and Iowa. These are bad-ass psychos; among the world’s best. I would rather, however, not have either test but have a battery of common-core course-based tests that accurately reflect course content and learning. If I am an admissions officer at an institution, I would rather receive a transcript from a non-profit national group that acted as the collector of test data (e.g., The National Student Clearinghouse would fill this role particularly well, for one) and produce a report that provides the test scores on as many as 30 tests (as in the SAT II tests) with a combined average test score that could be used to help administrators decipher the scores. Perhaps the college simply says give us the five scores of your choice, but must include x, y, and z. This is somewhat how it works now, except that the request includes either an SAT or ACT plus SAT II scores. This would be much more simple and straightforward is we had end-of-course tests for the common core. The state could provide a secure website for this information or the non-profit organization.

To the argument that take away a state’s right to produce its own curriculum and tests, that is true to an extent. But if a state subscribes to the common core (and, sorry, but there is no decent or prudent reason not to be involved with the common core), then why not take the burden of test taking off the state budget and use a nationally-normed test that is likely better than what you are using. Virginians are proud of their SOL tests (Standards of Learning; more commonly known as S**t Out of Luck tests), but the cost of developing the tests is astronomical and the ability for states to keep their test up is problematic for budget reasons, let alone technological reasons. In 2014, the state did not provide the necessary to update the SOL to adaptive testing, as requested, because they didn’t have the funds. This is what happens: it comes down to dollars and there is no sense in having 50 states create 50 state tests.

The second argument is more about fairness. If one believes that we should have an entrance examination to colleges in the United States, then I argue that anyone applying to a public institution should not have to pay a test fee. Period.

I am not a proponent of free college except to low-income students. However, I am also not a proponent of a “user fee” just to take the text that is required of a majority of the 2,400 four-year institutions in the country. Perhaps the institutions that receive the SAT/ACT scores from students should pay the fee, even if the students do not enroll. Some might say that would be a bureaucratic nightmare. But we have the technology. If student A has the College Board send her scores to two public universities and one private university, they each institution would pay, lets’ say, a $30 fee. Universities would not like this, but perhaps this should be the cost of playing the entrance examination game. How is it fair to burden the student on the test fees, when the test isn’t their choice? It is the institution that makes the decision to use the test so let them pay the fee. But wouldn’t that just increase tuition, fees, or public subsidies? Perhaps, but then that becomes a user fee for those that go to college (not all SAT/ACT test takers go to college, or go to an institution that requires an entrance exam). If the cost of adding the test fees for an institution becomes unmanageable, the perhaps the institution will think differently about either requiring the test or work with the K12 sector and prow toward a common core text battery.

In the end, at least one could hope that the institutions would pay for dinner.

Disclaimer: The author worked for the College Board from 1996 to 2000.

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Musings on the 2016 Presidential Election and Ramifications for Education

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

In what will arguably go down as the “longest” election in the history of the United States, it is worthy of a conversation about the future of federal education policy.

Why the longest? President Obama was inaugurated for the second time on January 21, 2013. One day later, the GOP started openly talking about their “upcoming stars,” including Senator Rubio and Representative Paul Ryan and began filing bills for electoral changes to make voting more difficult for voters on January 24th. Since then, the ramping up by the GOP has been non-stop. Rubio, Christie, and Cruz have been ever present for the past three-plus years, and then entered The Donald just to make it that much more interesting. And he has succeeded.


Over the past year, the GOP has held 11 debates with two more scheduled and have also held six forums. The Democrats have held 6 debates with two more scheduled. Fox, MSNBC, and CNN provide 24/7 political dialogue, most of which is completely inconsequential, irrelevant, and particularly annoying.

But one thing is for certain: on November 8, 2016, this, too, will end when the country picks the 45th President of the United States. Of course, the end of this election cycle serves only as the genesis of the next cycle. Politics is the gift that keeps on giving.

I can make a prediction what the outcome will be on November 8, but I’ll not go there. The stakes are high and the split is fairly even. The gap between the GOP and Democrats in 2012 was 3.9 percent. In 2008, that split was larger due to the Obama surge (7.2 percent). But in 2000 and 2004, the split was minuscule . What will it be this year? Who knows, but it will be historically close for a two-party system.

Percentage of Vote Electoral Votes





51.1 47.2 3.9 332 206



52.9 45.7 7.2 365 173 192
2004 48.3 50.7


251 286


2000 48.4 47.9 0.5 266 271


The overarching question remains: What happens to federal education policy if the next president is a Republican? Dare I say President Trump? Or what happens if Hillary Clinton becomes president (sorry Bernie, numbers aren’t looking good for you).

People put a lot of faith in the ability of the President to carve federal policy. The reality is, the President may have veto and executive order privileges to throw weight around, but Congress dictates policy. The current scramble in Congress to nominate and confirm a Supreme Court Justice is currently being held hostage by Senator McConnell. While I argue that it is unconstitutional for him and the GOP to do so, the Democrats argued something similar when Bush was in power. The point is that Congress rules, not the President. They all play the same game, and play it well. The reality is that, over the past several years, Congress has decided to do as little as possible. Because the Presidency and Congress are held by opposing political parties, the game has been about obstruction. Thus, whether a Republican or Democrat becomes POTUS 45 matters greatly.

Let’s say, for argument sake only, that Hillary Clinton is elected as the 45th President of the United States. What is likely to happen at the US Department of Education and federal policy? Not much, is my bet. If she does her job well, she will work with Paul Ryan to come up with some formula to make college (marginally) more affordable for students, knowing that their respective strategies will differ greatly. They can likely compromise on tinkering with federal financial aid and perhaps creating more incentives for cost control. Beyond that, not much in higher education. At the K12 level, her stance is to provide high-quality education in all zip codes, support students with disabilities, and provide new supports for teachers. Typical Democrat focus areas. The GOP-held Congress will push for more support of charters and the typical GOP fair, and that’s where Hillary may pull out her veto pen. Bottom line is that not much will happen and she won’t likely make much ground on her agenda.

If the GOP takes the Presidency, the potential for change looms large because they will control the White House, the Congress, and, well, The Supreme Court. The perfect political trifecta. Let us assume the Donald Trump becomes the next President of the United States. He has articulated, as he often does, arguments on both sides of an issue. He believes that there is too much student debt and he wants to look closely at colleges and financial aid. He would like the federal government to either get out of the loan business or reduce its role. As he said in his book, Crippled America (2015): “These student loans are probably one of the only things that the government shouldn’t make money from and yet it does.” He said that “We’re going to do something with regard to really smart financing.” We don’t know what this is, but it will arguably be “really” smart.

Trump is an advocate of school vouchers at the K12 level. “Who’s better off?,” Trump wrote in 2000. “The kids who use vouchers to go to the school of their choice, or the ones who choose to stay in public school? All of them. That’s the way it works in a competitive system.” If he holds to that aged statement, it would suggest that he prefers a split system to keep the marketplace competitive. Thus, pushing the voucher movement further.

On October 18, 2015, he said that he may cut the Department of Education completely, but many have said that and never been able to do it once they understand the negative ramifications. But he does believe in devolution from Washington: “I’m a tremendous believer in education, but education has to be at a local level. We cannot have the bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to manage your child’s education.”

The question is whether a President Trump can work with the GOP-led Congress. Even if he runs under the Republican banner, he has made enough enemies that he could be a persona non grata on Capitol Hill. However, Trump does have a chameleon-like persona and will subsequently change a few tunes and work as necessary with the House and Senate. The other current nominees, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich, are more likely to have positive relationships with Congress, even though, as Senator Lindsey Graham (SC) stated last week: “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.” (This is what happens when you read Dr. Suess on the floor of the US Senate.)

So, we are stuck with observations of Hillary Clinton (sorry again, but Bernie won’t have the votes), Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, John Kasich (the dark horse), and Ted Cruz.

Or are we?

There is an outside chance that Michael Bloomberg, the 8th richest man in the US (Donald Trump is 324th) and former mayor of New York City, is playing with the idea of running as an independent. He’s been a Democrat; he’s been a Republican; now he’s an independent. Bloomberg had a very good run as two-time elected mayor of NYC. As mayor, his views were more Democrat than Republican, and he would have the ability to take votes from both sides of the aisle. Word on the street is that he will not run if Hillary is likely to win the nomination (most likely) as he would not want to take votes away from her. If Senator Sanders is edging to win, then he could enter the race.

If there was a President Bloomberg, it is more than likely that (a) he could be more successful than others working with Congress because of his ability and track record; and (b) he would likely buttress the US Department of Education and expand, not contract, its role. He is a staunch advocate of public education and would potentially extend the federal government’s oversight of schools and colleges.

All of this, of course, is speculative. I’m not suggesting which is better or worse. It just “is.” You will have to make your own decision on how you view the game. In the end, we may not know what will happen come November or what follows thereafter. But politics the game is in full swing, and we’re all rolling the dice.

Have a good weekend.

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A New Higher Education? Free Tuition? Again? Really?

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

I read an interesting piece in by Ilona Dougherty about the issues of free tuition and the future of higher education—both issues I spend a fair amount of attention on. In the article, she mentions that the Canadian Federation of Students (CSF), a non-profit organization that, well, makes Bernie Sanders look like Ted Cruz, would like the Canadian Parliament to provide $1.8 billion in federal money to help make university free in Canada. This is a standard pitch for CFS. At least they are consistent.


I have previously argued that free tuition is an imprudent public policy for the masses as it is regressive in nature, meaning that it actually helps the affluent more than it helps the poor. When Bernie Sanders came out last year for free tuition, I quickly denounced his strategy because it does not make any fiscal nor social sense for a nation. Certainly, reduced tuition, fees, and room and board—that is, total cost of attendance—must remain a primary public policy for helping the poor. As well, these policies are increasingly important for middle class families who find themselves at the nexus of limited need-based grants and high cost of attendance, significantly impacting their postsecondary choices. For affluent families, they should pay a higher rate for college attendance because they have the disposable income to handle the burden. Even so, all public higher education is subsidized to a degree, so everyone gets something, if not for free, for much cheaper than full pay. Even private, non-profit institutions provide significant need and non-need-based aid to students of all income levels. So everyone is getting a deal somewhere. But suggesting that everyone receives free tuition is simply a very bad suggestion for public policy.

But Dougherty makes a secondary and much more salient point that perhaps free tuition is not bold enough for consideration. She uses information from CFS itself which states that 40 percent of 25-34 year olds in Canada with a university degree are “overqualified for their current position.” And here comes the rub.

Why are we pushing more and more students to a four-year (or more) university degree if the jobs are not available? Again, I’ve argued this for over a decade that our institutions and their degrees, with some exceptions, are out of time, out of sync, and out of place. We are using an archaic analog system in a digital world, still based on Carnegie units and still based on seat time for learning. Certainly, online presence has pushed the boundaries of higher education, but only marginally. It has mainly displaced the seat time issue from here to anywhere. The structure of higher education is roughly the same as it was in the 1950s. And in a brave new world that is based on knowledge transfer rather than acquisition, this is a problem.

It would not be a problem, of course, if tuition was free. At least not to students and parents, many of who are either giving away their first mortgage or, for the latter, their retirement, to ensure a university-level education. But free tuition is paid by someone, and it always comes back to you and me—society as a whole. But even in a subsidized tuition model, perhaps one that is better structured than what we currently have, the opportunity cost for students in addition to the financial burden is a serious issue—especially based on these graduates being “overqualified” for their jobs.

Let us stop talking about silly things such as free tuition. That argument is a complete waste of time because (a) it will never happen because it is political unfeasible and (b) it should never happen because it lacks any fiscal or social responsibility. Let us have the argument about where the balance resides between fairness and equity for those who need societal support and those who pay the tax burden. And then let us have the more important argument about our moral deficit in pushing people to take on oversized loans to earn a degree that is not very tangible in the current employment market.

The mousetrap is broken. Let us embrace our technology and our evolving society to ensure that our higher education system focuses on competencies while still instilling the importance of the “liberal arts.” Let us design a system that does not force students to spend X amount of time in school, but ensures that when they graduate they possess top-shelf skills in reading, writing, comprehension, application, and synthesis. Perhaps we need to take ourselves back to Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives to re-center our efforts.

It would be aloof to suggest that conversations are not happening on this level or focus, but the conversations are not very loud in an arena that is deafening with regard to student debt and gainful employment. We need to redesign our system so it is more reflective of the needs of business, industry, and society. It needs to be able provide both resilience and malleability in altering course and providing skill sets that parallel with those that are being requested in the field; skill sets that are about process more than knowledge, while maintaining the quest for competence. Too many people have given short shrift to the potential of stackable credits and other short-term learning credentials. The quest for a higher education should be recast as a quest for an education that matters and is worth the time, effort, and money. We are only doing that now for a sliver of those who go and complete college. That is just not good enough.

On a parallel track, the solution to higher education also requires us paying far more attention to what goes on in secondary education. Much more effort must be placed on ensuring that incoming college students—at all levels—have a respectful mastery of language and critical analysis that provides the foundation for “higher” learning. Too many of our freshman college students simply do not possess the skills to learn effectively or efficiently in college, no matter what it looks like, necessarily increasing the opportunity cost for them, especially for those who do not complete a college degree.

We need to take responsibility for sustaining a system that is antiquated in a face-paced, dynamically-evolving global society. Sitting for four-plus years is not the answer. Ensuring high-level thinking and learning is. Let’s move on from free higher education to progressive higher education—a system that benefits all stakeholders, not just the chosen few.


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America’s Newest Scholarship Provider: PornHub

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

I read an interesting article today about a $25,000 scholarship given to a Texas woman who was down on her luck. The 48-year old will use the scholarship to continue her education. MaryAnn Uribe completed a two-year associate’s degree and now wants to complete her BA. The philanthropist in this case is PornHub, one of the world’s largest online pornographic providers (that’s what I read…really).

The story actually gets pretty interesting. It seems Uribe was a whistleblower on her lawyer bosses. How much of a whistleblower? Well, enough that they hired a hit man to take her out. No joke. Read the story at the Washington Post here.

But that story is a complete and compelling sidetrack. Pornhub, which apparently has 79 billion video views a year, has established this scholarship to “expand their philanthropy.” I guess 79 million video views wasn’t enough. They have more to give.

According to Pornhub’s VP, there were over a 1,000 video entries and that they were looking for someone who spread “happiness and effected positive change.” As the VP stated, “She’s been through a lot. … When negative things happened, she really stood up for herself.”

I found the issue reminiscent of corporate political contributions and begs the question: is a scholarship from an organization that works in the pornographic business okay, or are there parameters around what is acceptable and not acceptable?


Recently, Bernie Sanders received a $2,700 contribution from Martin Shkreli, the guy who buys old pharmaceutical companies and then jacks up the price of their critical drugs. Sanders did not accept it and passed it on to another non-profit organization (Shkreli was arrested by the FBI yesterday on fraud charges). But when does a scholarship become toxic? When does it tip over into the untouchable side of discretion?

The use of scholarships as both philanthropy and to grease political and financial doors is nothing new. Companies have done this in a myriad of ways over the years. Organizations and individuals have provided scholarships to either (a) do a public good; (b) make them look good; or (c) influence people for future endeavors. If you are really good, you do all three.

I’m not going to say whether PornHub’s contribution is appropriate or not. I must say that I was stunned that they did this and they did it on what appear to be very legitimate and ethical grounds. On one hand my hat is completely off to them. On another, I’m wondering what the angle is.

What do you think?



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Watchdogs That Don’t Bite

By Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D.

President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

“For the most part, accreditation agencies are watchdogs that don’t bite.”

That’s what US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said yesterday regarding higher education accreditation in the United States. The US Department of Education is putting pressure on accreditors to do more about quality in higher education. However, the Department serves mostly as a bully pulpit and itself does not have the necessary teethduncan of their own on this issue. That stated, they are using data and transparency as their bully strategy. As quoted in this morning, former Occidental College president and current Undersecretary of education, Ted Mitchell, said this: “We’re using the tools of transparency to provide everyone with more information and, quite frankly, to say to accreditors we’re paying attention to this with renewed vigor and that it’s going to matter… That message ought to be clear.”

According to the US Department of Education, there are 7,687 institutions accredited in the United States. Without this accreditation, these institutions cannot access federal student aid funds, including Pell Grants and Stafford Loans. According to the Wall Street Journal, only 18 of these institutions have been stripped of their accreditation since 2000. Let me put that in some perspective: less than one fifth of one percent of all institutions have lost their accreditation over the past 15 years. I find that astonishing.

As an eternal optimist (that may be somewhat overstated), I would like to believe that a majority of our institutions of higher education are outstanding venues for student learning. Over the past 30 years, I have attended (and graduated, to be completely transparent) four of them and visited hundreds more. In this limited experience as an educator and analyst, I can safely say that more than 18 institutions should be on the cut line in terms of accreditation. Put another way, I find it challenging to grasp that only one in 427 institutions lose their accreditation. It seems to buttress Arne Duncan’s contention that these watchdogs don’t bite.

The US Department of Education is using data to make their case and published performance data of the various accreditation groups yesterday. Below is a table I compiled from these data.

Table 1. Descriptive and Outcome Data of US Postsecondary Institutions, by Accreditation Agency (SOURCE: US Department of Education)


The regional accreditors above represent over 3,400 two- and four-year institutions and approximately 70 percent of all postsecondary students in the United States. Working left to right, the average graduation rate (150 percent of time) of these institutions is 41 percent, with the lowest at SACS (37 percent) and the highest at WASC (56 percent). Approximately half (49 percent) of students at these institutions have borrowed via federal loans, with an average median debt of graduates of $20,534 and a 12 percent three-year cohort default rate. Finally, the average earnings of graduates from these institutions 10 years after enrollment is $38,598.

These data in isolation don’t do much for us, other than underscoring the fact that our colleges and universities do not do a great job of getting students through the higher education vortex. The reality is that, beyond accreditation, there is no real accountability for higher education. The US Department of Education tries to extend its reach via Title IV and other levers, but the extent of that reach is limited.

Only a decade ago, Congress created what was known as the “Spelling Commission” to look at the future of higher education. In one of the papers presented to the commission, then-Senior Vice President of Lumina Foundation Bob Dickeson described higher education accreditation as a “crazy-quilt of activities, processes and structures that is fragmented, arcane, more historical than logical, and has outlived its usefulness.” Perhaps more importantly, he said that the current system is simply not “meeting the expectations required for the future.”

In response to the Commission, Judith Eaton, then and still current President of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), said “Why in the face of the success of U.S. higher ed — and accreditation is part of that success — would you want to put together something that cuts at the very features that have created what is good about us?”

Well, the problem with Ms. Eaton’s comment is that the US system of higher education isn’t near as good as most people would like to believe. Do we have the best institutions in the world? Arguably. But is it the best system? Are “all” our institutions really that good? I don’t think so. To me, this is reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom inaugural scene where Jeff Daniels’ character chastises a student who asks why the US is the best country in the world. He responds as such,

Just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know. One of them is: There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending – where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt a member of the worst period generation period ever period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the f— you’re talking about!…


That’s probably overdoing my analogy, but this is my blog…

Surely it is hard to argue that we need more accountability in higher education. Just sayin’: when 59 percent of entering students at the above institutions don’t graduate with a degree, we have a problem. There are a lot of reasons for the lower graduation rate, including the reality that we have an unbelievably forgiving system of postsecondary education, which comes at great cost to taxpayers and individuals. And that bill has been accumulating for a long, long time. It’s time to do something more rational.

We have to do better. And our accreditation agencies must do better. Accreditation will undoubtedly be the core of accountability for the future. I can’t think of any other measurement system that can single-handedly serve as our accountability measure. So accreditation is here, will be here, and we need it to be better. President Obama has said that he will hold colleges “accountable for cost, value, and quality,” and even though he has less than a year left in office, it is unlikely that the incoming President will move very far from this line of inquiry.

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