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Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities [Paperback]

William G. Bowen , Matthew M. Chingos , Michael S. McPherson

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Book Description

Feb. 27 2011 0691149909 978-0691149905 Reprint

The United States has long been a model for accessible, affordable education, as exemplified by the country's public universities. And yet less than 60 percent of the students entering American universities today are graduating. Why is this happening, and what can be done? Crossing the Finish Line provides the most detailed exploration ever of college completion at America's public universities. This groundbreaking book sheds light on such serious issues as dropout rates linked to race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

Probing graduation rates at twenty-one flagship public universities and four statewide systems of public higher education, the authors focus on the progress of students in the entering class of 1999--from entry to graduation, transfer, or withdrawal. They examine the effects of parental education, family income, race and gender, high school grades, test scores, financial aid, and characteristics of universities attended (especially their selectivity). The conclusions are compelling: minority students and students from poor families have markedly lower graduation rates--and take longer to earn degrees--even when other variables are taken into account. Noting the strong performance of transfer students and the effects of financial constraints on student retention, the authors call for improved transfer and financial aid policies, and suggest ways of improving the sorting processes that match students to institutions.

An outstanding combination of evidence and analysis, Crossing the Finish Line should be read by everyone who cares about the nation's higher education system.


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Review

Winner of the 2010 Pierre Bourdieu Book Award, Sociology of Education Section of the American Sociological Association

Honorable Mention for the 2009 PROSE Award in Education, Association of American Publishers

"Identifying the causes of the college dropout crisis matters enormously, and [Crossing the Finish Line] tries to do precisely that. . . . For all the book's alarming statistics, its message is ultimately uplifting--or at least invigorating. . . . Crossing the Finish Line makes it clear that we can do better."--David Leonhardt, New York Times

"Crossing the Finish Line serves as a wake-up call to educators and administrators, and provides valuable data that will help universities to invest their resources in nurturing the talents of all their students. It also provides a disturbing glimpse of the far-reaching effects of limited expectations and diminished educational opportunities."--Devorah Bennu, Nature

"The most comprehensive look yet possible at the determinants of graduation rates--and what might be done to improve them. Bowen and McPherson are economists and bring economists' sensibilities and methods to their subject. Much of the book uses regression analysis to assess the impact of various factors on college completion (e.g., socioeconomic status, financial aid, and institutional selectivity) after adjusting for other factors such as students' high-school grades and test scores. Individual chapters deftly summarize what is known about each topic and then often extend that knowledge substantially. . . . The book provides new and often surprising insights on other major determinants of college completion. The chapters on financial aid, in particular, are masterful. . . . Crossing the Finish Line exemplifies the best that social science research has to offer: rigorous empirical analysis brought to bear on a major public policy issue. Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson have provided an essential resource that both researchers and policymakers will consult for years to come."--Richard C. Atkinson and Saul Geiser, Science Magazine

"The authors of Crossing the Finish Line have done a masterful job of introducing multiple concepts and combining their presentation of complex issues into a well organized text which not only paints a clearer picture of college completion in American public universities, but also gives significant attention to major findings from their research in each chapter. This book has truly established itself as one of the most impressive collections of analyses and discussions from a massive higher education dataset and should therefore be required reading for current students and added to the personal libraries of the entire higher education community."--Toyia K. Younger, Journal of College Student Development

"The authors are emphatic that the United States cannot improve overall educational attainment unless there are significant changes in public higher education. . . . One of the major themes of the book is of the importance of disparities--and the need to be precise about them."--Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed.com

"Among the book's central themes: Large disparities exist in graduation rates by gender, ethnicity, and family income, even after accounting for differences in standardized test scores and high-school preparation. That is not exactly news, but the book grounds those findings in an unusually rich set of data. . . . Mr. Bowen and his colleagues put forward two arguments that are likely to fuel debate for several years. . . . The first argument is that money matters. . . . The second argument is that admissions offices should downplay the SAT and ACT, and instead lean heavily on students' high school grades. . . . The tuition and SAT debates are, of course, evergreens of education policy, and they might still be running long after everyone who reads this article is dead. But some of the most provocative sections of Crossing the Finish Line have to do with a third, less familiar debate: Why, exactly, are graduation rates stronger at selective colleges?"--David Glenn, Chronicle of Higher Education

"While the findings might eventually inform students choosing colleges, the more immediate audience is policy-makers and educators. Bowen's previous data-driven work, on affirmative action and college athletics, has been hugely influential. Again with this project, he and his co-authors gained access to information allowing them to track thousands of individual students over time. The findings paint a grim picture of wasted opportunities, but also suggest even relatively modest efforts to provide students more information and encouragement could substantially 'increase social mobility and augment the nation's human capital.'"--Justin Pope, Associated Press

"An important and insightful analysis of a major issue for contemporary America. . . . The authors succeed in portraying the problem and its solutions in a dense, evidence-based study, a complex yet well-structured and readable work that is essential for those interested in higher education and public policy."--Elizabeth Hayford, Library Journal starred review

"Among its many accomplishments, this book documents the fact that college completion depends on more than financial means and intellectual ability."--David Bressoud, Mathematical Association of America

"A wealth of fresh insights and research."--Mark Harper, Daytona News-Journal

"This book is highly recommended to anyone who wants to be in touch with the latest literature and trends in student retention and persistence at the national level."--Joshua L. Brittingham, NACADA Journal

"Full of important information about who succeeds in American public education, this book is a key contribution to the literature on who graduates, what they study, and what circumstances seem to support or impede their success."--Diversity Web

"Crossing the Finish Line is a trenchant and revealing look at the success of America's public universities in graduating all students. . . . 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."--Kolajo Paul Afolabi, Harvard Educational Review

"While I most highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in higher education policy issues in general, and college graduation in particular, higher education researchers and analysts will find this book to be particularly useful as a springboard to other relevant studies focusing on issues such as the effect of high-tuition/high-aid policy or in-depth analysis on the issues related to over-matched and under-matched students."--Dongbin Kim, Higher Education Journal

"Professionals across the board, including researchers, administrators, educators, and policy makers will find Crossing the Finish Line informative and compelling, and will be able to apply the findings of Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson (2009) to their own endeavors."--Lynette O'Keefe, Education Review

"Do not come to this volume faint of heart. This is a book so full of ideas, research, and implications for practice that it is not an easy read. It must be absorbed over time, and digested in a manner that allows the reader to pull together all the facets of its very rich panoply. However, approached in this way, it will be deeply rewarding. Not only will the reader be better informed but also prepared to develop a course of action that will make the United States and our colleges and universities much better places for our young to grow and achieve their potential."--Dean Kay Whitla, Continuing Higher Education Review

"In the course of reading this work, I found it to be an inspiring book. It aims to answer big questions with important consequences for our future. It was written by scholars who care deeply about how the market for higher education works and the role that universities play in producing human capital. Their knowledge on the subject and their grasp of the literature are truly remarkable. For these reasons, policy makers and researchers working on the market for higher education or on the transition from high school to college will certainly learn a lot from this book."--Flvio Cunha, Journal of Human Capital

From the Inside Flap

"Crossing the Finish Line is a must-read for anyone concerned with the disturbing fact that Americans can no longer count on each generation being better educated than the last. Focusing on public institutions that educate more than three-fourths of U.S. students, Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson provide compelling arguments that institutions and policymakers must find new ways to overcome deeply entrenched patterns if our country is to regain its position as the most educated."--Molly Corbett Broad, president, American Council on Education

"Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson have provided a long-needed overview of public higher education. Even though public colleges and universities educate a high fraction of all undergraduates in this country, very little significant research has been undertaken about this sector. The authors have completed a massive project containing data that will guide the future of public higher education for decades to come. This book should be carefully read and studied by every higher education leader in this country."--E. Gordon Gee, president, Ohio State University

"Addressing an issue that will determine America's leadership role in the world, Crossing the Finish Line should be at the top of everyone's reading list. Innovative and accessible data analyses illuminate all the important factors that determine who achieves the American dream now, and who might do so in the future, if we provide the help so many students desperately need."--William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions, Harvard University

"The twenty-one outstanding flagship state universities studied in this important book are vital for the future of higher education and the quality of our skilled labor force. Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson carry out a sophisticated analysis of the students who enter these universities, those who graduate, and the measurable effects of their education in between. Anyone interested in higher education will want to keep this book at hand."--Robert M. Solow, Nobel Prize-winning economist

"Given rising pressure on state budgets, public higher education must learn to do more with less. Crossing the Finish Line illuminates anachronistic practices, such as an overreliance on test scores in admissions, continuing tuition subsidies to higher income families, and an underemphasis on degree completion. For the nation's economic future and the dreams of tomorrow's college aspirants, we must fundamentally rethink the function, pricing, and operation of public colleges."--Thomas J. Kane, Harvard Graduate School of Education

"Crossing the Finish Line is a timely, compelling, and insightful analysis of the challenges of college completion in the United States. Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson have done an extraordinary job of analyzing and synthesizing data that leads to the inescapable conclusion that far too many of the nation's low-income, first generation, and minority students--the future backbone of our workforce--are not graduating from college. In the modern world, a postsecondary degree or credential is not just nice; it's absolutely necessary for our economic and social prosperity as a nation. This book makes a clear case for getting the right information, the right amount of financial assistance, and the right support to students who otherwise might make the wrong choice--or worse, no choice at all."--Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive officer, Lumina Foundation for Education

"Crossing the Finish Line provides a new and rich source of data. Highly original, the book is by far the most detailed examination ever made of the socioeconomic factors that go into explaining differential rates of public college attendance and completion."--David W. Breneman, Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, University of Virginia

"This comprehensive, accessible, and valuable book examines college completion and noncompletion at a group of public colleges and universities. The authors have assembled remarkable data characterizing the background and college experiences of students at these schools, and make a major contribution to our understanding of public higher education institutions."--Jesse Rothstein, Princeton University

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.2 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Topic - Lots of Statistics June 4 2012
By JoLynn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Suggests that we need to do a better job of matching students to the most challenging programs that they are suited for, and that this will result in higher graduation rates."
9 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Please study a more important question May 24 2010
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The most interesting implication of this book to me is one the authors do not state: If the United States succeeds in increasing the % of citizens who attend AND graduate from college, the wage premium for college graduates will decline. The wage premium is rising largely because high-end universities are not growing enrollment, ensuring a supply/demand imbalance. High achievers capture a disparate share of the degree-wage premium. And the bulk of those high achievers come from a short list of "name" universities that get first pick of students. Do America's top 100 universities have any interest in growing the number of educated Americans? Hardly. Their pace of enrollment growth has been glacial for many decades.

The authors briefly argue against diminishing returns, citing anecdotal studies but not confronting the larger numbers that would be involved if they got their wish. This book carries on the attitude of the more, the better, because it's all about trying to understand why the % of students who finish college is not going up. It's stuck at 50%--45% for public schools, 55% for private.

The authors don't want that diminishing-returns debate, for they are fixated on the persistence of social and economic inequality. Their massive statistical analysis of the incoming class of 1999 shows that if your parents were poor and didn't attend college, you have a low chance of finishing college in six years regardless of your high school record. People in the top quartile of incomes have a better than 50/50 chance of getting a bachelor's degree by age 26; only about one in 10 from the poorest 25% of US families did so.

Inequality is reinforced by state flagship universities' increasingly selective admissions. The book samples UCLA, North Carolina and Virginia from 1974 to 2006; over that span the % of new students with >3.5 high school GPA rose from 55% to 90%. A similar move appeared in three other not-so-elitist flagship schools. Students from households in the top 25% of incomes are greatly overrepresented at these schools.

The authors miss the obvious explanation. Take UCLA. From '74 to '06 its undergraduate enrollment grew at a CAGR of 0.6%, less than half the rate of US population growth.

Our economy is fixated on hiring the best graduates of the same old list of schools, where the best faculty are hoarded. A smaller and smaller % of college students get to see them.

College participation is rising, rising fast in fact, but the completion rate isn't. It likely will fall due to a spike in the % of high school grads entering college, influenced by the recession's destruction of entry-level jobs.

This book is focused on the freshman class of 1999, which entered school half a year before the top of the Internet bubble. At this time, 55% of the age 18-19 population was employed, and their official unemployment rate was 12%. From the high school class of '99, the BLS tells us 63% immediately went to college (two or four-year). This was a generational low, equaled in fall 2000. Not coincidentally, the US unemployment rate dipped below 4% in 2000. Jobs were easy to get.

In fall 2009, 37-38% of the age 18-19 population was employed, and their official unemployment rate was as high as 26%. A full 70% of '99 high school grads went to college, highest on record. With a jobless rate of 10%, the labor market was ugly.

The book studies the graduation rate of the '99 class over a six-year period, on the veiled assumption that six years is long enough. Over a recession, of course, six years isn't long enough for people of limited economic means. And all they can tell is whether these students graduated from these schools--not how many had to transfer to lower-cost schools and finished there. Not how many finished in more than six years.

The Student Clearinghouse recently reported that 49% of 2005-06 college graduates finished in no more than four academic years, with about one-quarter taking more than five years, 10% more than seven. NCES reports that students who begin at two-year schools and finish at four-year schools take almost two academic years longer to finish than those who start four-year schools as freshmen. Economic strain forces people to save on college costs, which prolongs their time in college. The longer college is stretched out, the more likely one won't finish. Kids who go full-time without a worry about how to pay for it are at a great advantage.

This book's data supports the well-established fact that high schools in low-income areas do not prepare graduates well enough for college. But not as much as you might think.

The authors analyzed the quality of high schools that supplied the '99 college freshmen by college prep measures (SAT, ACT, AP). The performance spread between high/low income, high/low test scores, ethnic mixes isn't great. Surprisingly consistent. The spread between the elite state universities and other state schools, however, is remarkably wide across any subgroup. Selective admissions appears to improve grad rate by 220-300 basis points.

Further, the authors note the Chicago Consortium's conclusions that less than half of Chicago high school grads studied enrolled in colleges good enough to match their academic achievements. The authors studied their North Carolina data set and found more than 40% of '99 high school grads with excellent SAT scores + GPAs did not attend exclusive universities. They suggest these students have low expectations too early in the process, most not even applying to better schools. I ask: If they had gotten in, who would have been bumped?

Inevitably, good students will be forced into lesser schools, and many of them will be bored or shamed into dropping out. It doesn't take reams of data to tell you that.

If you read this study, you may conclude that the subsequent question is how to improve college opportunities for people who weren't excellent in high school, weren't raised by college grads, aren't made of money. This no longer is the problem of the state universities. Their capacity constraints lead them to price out and test out more and more applicants. Our country has only one source of new capacity for educating adults, the for-profit schools that the Obama administration seems to abhor. The problem of controlling for-profit schools, ensuring they teach well and award meaningful degrees, seems more manageable than finding the dollars to persuade not-for-profit schools to grow again.
4 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great Topic -- Not Fully Developed March 23 2010
By Gustavo A. Mellander, Ph.D., D.H.L. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Why do so many students drop out of our colleges? Why do so many take so long to graudate? I fear Vincent Tinto books such as "Leaving College" answer these questions better than these authors and Tinto also provides practical solutions to correct the shortcomings.

Most college students, those who do graduate, never finish in a mere four years. Going part-time is more and more the norm. Going to college is just too expensive. Students have to work to afford it. Also too many students can't find the courses they need to graduate in a timely fashion. Many are burdened with enormous loan obligation once they graduate. The authors would have been more helpful had they studied and explained why college tuition and other costs have outstripped the general annual cost of living rate for decades.

I am surprised that the authors would state that minority and low income students have a lower graduation rate than more privileged students. Duh --one had to write a book to say that?

It is no wonder that America's love affair with higher education is over.
2 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars One Side of the Story - Jan. 11 2010
By Loyd E. Eskildson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
About 56% of students entering four-year colleges in America are graduating. The authors focus on the progress of students in the class of 2003, and their conclusion is that minority students and those from low-income families have considerably lower graduation rates. In addition, the proportion completing a bachelor's or more stagnated in the last ten years. We're now tenth among OECD nations in tertiary achievement rate, while in natural sciences and engineering the U.S. was 17th in 2000 graduation rates, down from 2nd in 1975. A major puzzlement for the authors is that it doesn't improve, despite data showing considerably higher earnings for graduates. The bulk of the book is concerned with reaching data-driven conclusions.

What we don't get is anything about why college costs have risen at a rate much faster than inflation, thereby making it difficult for many to attend and complete their studies.
0 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Not for resale" book Oct. 11 2010
By JF - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The condition of the book is fine, but it is marked "not for resale." This means the seller or the person the seller purchased it from most likely received the book for free. Usually educators, libraries and the like receive free books from publishers and are not supposed to sell them...

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