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Crossing the Finish Line

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

William G. Bowen
Matthew M. Chingos
Michael S. McPherson
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Crossing the Finish Line
    Book Description:

    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 Lineprovides 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 Lineshould be read by everyone who cares about the nation's higher education system.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3146-3
    Subjects: Education, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xxiv)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Educational Attainment: Overall Trends, Disparities, and the Public Universities We Study
    (pp. 1-19)

    The subject of this book—educational attainment in the United States—could hardly be more timely. Academics, framers of public policy, and journalists are united in bemoaning the failure of the United States in recent years to continue building the human capital it needs to satisfy economic, social, and political needs. In their bookThe Race Between Education and Technology,Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz applaud America’s astonishingly steady and substantial educational progress during the first three quarters of the 20th century—and then are just as emphatic in calling attention to the dramatic falling off in the rate of...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Bachelor’s Degree Attainment on a National Level
    (pp. 20-31)

    In this chapter we provide a national framework for the far more detailed analysis of bachelor’s degree completion in public universities that is the core of this part of our book. The special characteristics of the flagship universities that we study in such detail set them off in many ways from higher education in the United States viewed more broadly: they are much more selective, they enroll more students from privileged backgrounds, and they have resources far beyond what many other colleges and universities, public and private, can claim. Thus, we would expect them to have higher graduation rates than...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Finishing College at Public Universities
    (pp. 32-56)

    As we have seen, nationally representative data indicate that there are substantial disparities in educational outcomes by socioeconomic status (SES) and race/ethnicity at every stage along the path toward a bachelor’s degree: high school graduation, college enrollment, and college completion. The national data demonstrate without question that these disparities are indeed systemic, but the modest size of data sets such as those of the National Education Longitudinal Study, or NELS (12,064 students, of whom 6,529 attended a four-year college at some point) make it difficult to probe the nature and source of these disparities. For example, examining the educational outcomes...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Fields of Study, Time-to-Degree, and College Grades
    (pp. 57-86)

    The previous chapter showed that stark disparities in college graduation rates by socioeconomic status (SES), race/ethnicity, and gender persist across a wide variety of settings in American public higher education. Although these disparities in completion rates (in “finishing”) are troubling in and of themselves, they tell us nothing about differences among students who do graduate.

    Differences in the academic experiences of students associated with family background or race/ethnicity would be of concern even if disparities in graduation rates were not observed. For example, less advantaged students might feel especially strong pressures to major in fields such as business that seem...

  9. CHAPTER 5 High Schools and “Undermatching”
    (pp. 87-111)

    In seeking to understand the forces that shape educational attainment in the United States, some pride of place needs to be given to secondary schools. Everyone believes that the characteristics of high schools and the experiences of students in high school have much to do not only with immediate secondary school outcomes such as earning a diploma but also with the subsequent educational achievements of those who surmount the hurdle of high school graduation.

    There is a considerable body of research analyzing the connections between the high school experiences of students and their later educational outcomes. This literature includes, for...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Test Scores and High School Grades as Predictors
    (pp. 112-133)

    This chapter, more than any other, has its roots in the past, with branches that extend in many directions. Since at least the 1930s, back to the time of James Conant at Harvard and his close relationship with Henry Chauncey, the first director of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), there has been an ongoing debate over standardized testing and its proper role in “matching” students to suitable educational programs. Important books, including Nicholas Lemann’sThe Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy,have been written on this subject. Richard C. Atkinson, president emeritus of the University of California,...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Transfer Students and the Path from Two-Year to Four-Year Colleges
    (pp. 134-148)

    Our study of educational attainment necessarily focuses on four-year institutions, for it is receipt of bachelor’s degrees that is of particular interest to us. More specifically, we focus on first-time, full-time freshmen at the 21 flagship universities and in the four state systems in our study because the “traditional” path to a bachelor’s degree is to matriculate at a four-year college the fall after finishing high school, then graduate from college four years later. However, we have seen that a non-trivial number of students leave their initial four-year institution and earn degrees elsewhere (Chapter 3) and that even those who...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Financial Aid and Pricing on a National Level
    (pp. 149-165)

    In Chapter 2 we provided an overview of national evidence on college enrollment and completion before plunging into the analysis of data from our study. Here we perform the same task for the topics of financial aid and college pricing before reporting new findings from our own data in Chapter 9.

    The process of determining the actual bottom-line cost a family will face in sending a family member to a particular university or college is surprisingly—and for many families discouragingly—complicated. For the majority of American students, the financial package that they will ultimately confront includes contributions from a...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Financial Aid at Public Universities
    (pp. 166-191)

    IN THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER we reviewed information on pricing and student aid for American higher education as a whole as well as the statistical evidence that the net cost to students of attending college has a measurable impact on students’ initial enrollment and likelihood of graduation. Here we examine the circumstances of the students at the flagship universities and state systems in our study—and the circumstances of the institutions themselves—looking both at how students pay for college and whether the net costs they face affect their behavior.

    We focus most of our attention on those students who attend...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Institutional Selectivity and Institutional Effects
    (pp. 192-206)

    Throughout our study, we have examined groups of universities separately by selectivity groupings in order to compare outcomes at broadly similar institutions while still maintaining adequate cell sizes and protecting the confidentiality of results for individual institutions. Although many findings—such as the disparity in graduation rates between students from families of high and low socioeconomic status (SES)—are consistent across these selectivity groupings, overall graduation rates vary widely. The six-year graduation rate ranges from 86 percent at the selectivity cluster (SEL) I flagships to 51 percent at the state system SEL Bs (refer back to Figure 3.1a). These pronounced...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Target Populations
    (pp. 207-222)

    This penultimate chapter has two connected themes. The first is the need to reduce the gross disparities in graduation rates that exist today among groups classified by race and socioeconomic status (SES)—an objective that is important in its own right given this country’s long-standing belief in promoting social mobility and a widely (though by no means universally) shared commitment to continuing to redress the legacy of this country’s “unlovely” racial history. The second is the need to improve the overall level of educational attainment in the United States—an objective that can be advanced, we believe, by focusing on...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Looking Ahead
    (pp. 223-238)

    Pervasive, persistent, but not intractable.That is how we view the disparities in educational attainment that we have documented in this book. Similarly, the failure of the overall level of educational attainment in this country to increase in recent years, as it did so steadily for most of our nation’s history, does not have to be accepted as an immutable fact of life in 21st-century America.¹ In this concluding chapter we will use the findings reported in previous chapters to look ahead—to define the challenges before us and to identify ways of addressing them.

    We have identified five principal...

  17. APPENDIX A. The Modern Evolution of America’s Flagship Universities
    (pp. 239-264)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 265-336)
  19. List of Figures
    (pp. 337-346)
  20. List of Tables
    (pp. 347-348)
  21. List of Appendix Tables
    (pp. 349-356)
  22. References
    (pp. 357-376)
  23. Index
    (pp. 377-389)