Crossing the Finish Line
Completing College at America’s Public Universities
Until recently, issues of access have dominated postsecondary education discourse in America; most scholars, policy makers, and practitioners have been concerned with who goes to college. In their new book, William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, and Michael McPherson move beyond access to the crucial economic issue of who finishes college. Crossing the Finish Line is a trenchant and revealing look at the success of America’s public universities in graduating all students. The authors focus on public colleges and universities and specifically on flagships, primarily because of their stated missions to serve as engines of social mobility. Using a data set of twenty-one flagship institutions and four public state systems, the authors are able to answer heretofore confounding questions about who is graduating from college, when they are doing it, where this is happening, and possible reasons why some students graduate while others do not.
Many of the authors’ findings challenge conventional beliefs about who succeeds in college and why. They find that four-year and six-year graduation rates are lower for students who attend less selective institutions or who are from modest backgrounds or traditionally underrepresented racial or ethnic groups. Their finding that almost half of all withdrawals at public universities happen after the second year of college challenges widely held beliefs that most withdrawals happen earlier and that efforts to improve persistence should thus be frontloaded. In addition, a lack of differences in choice of major by socioeconomic status or race and ethnicity is a surprising null effect; it rebuts the myth that low-income students and students of color avoid more challenging courses of study.
Of all the insights offered in Crossing the Finish Line, one of the most compelling and policy-relevant is that of the “undermatch.” The authors demonstrate that about 40 percent of “highly qualified” students enroll in institutions that are less selective than the more competitive schools they would be qualified to attend. Undermatched students are less likely to graduate, and this phenomenon holds true for black males and Hispanic students, providing strong countervailing evidence to the charge that students of color are done an educational disservice by affirmative action. Another significant contribution of
this book is its revelation that the SAT and ACT have little predictive validity for whether or not a student graduates from college or when they leave. With the unique features of their data set, Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson are able to demonstrate that high school GPA is a much stronger predictor of college performance and that the SAT and ACT are largely proxies for high school quality.
In addition to the somewhat unsurprising findings that greater availability of financial aid is related to student success and that more selective institutions generally have higher graduation rates, the authors bring to light a troubling paradox for policy makers regarding transfer students. Students who begin at a two-year institution are less likely to graduate overall, but students who do transfer are more likely to graduate than similar students who started at a four-year institution.
The book strikes a difficult and often tedious balance between making the research accessible and demonstrating its soundness. Despite the best efforts of Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson, many researchers might be inconvenienced by having to go to the Princeton University Press Web site to access some appendixes. Also, the authors’ discussion of propensity scores, standardized regression coefficients, and fixed effects might be overly technical for the intended audience. Though the book could have paid more attention to selfselection when discussing the effects of institutional selectivity on graduation rates and provided more background on the extent to which large state subsidies to flagship universities benefit wealthier students, the authors provide an insightful overview of various initiatives, such as POSSE and the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, that have been successful at supporting students of color. These types of efforts are important in ensuring that all students “cross the finish line.” The authors point to the graduation rates of middle- and high-income white students as low-hanging fruit in efforts to improve America’s overall college completion rates, but improving the graduation rates of these students alone will not suffice. Our deep-seated, if often unfulfilled, sense of equality of opportunity implores—and our changing demographics dictate—that we must improve the college completion rates of all students, especially those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, in order to ensure a fruitful economy and harmonious society for future generations of Americans.