Crossing the Finish Line

Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities. William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos and Michael S. McPherson. Princeton University Press, 2009. 389 pgs. ISBN 978-0- 691-13748-3.

crossing the finish line

For Latinos who live with the albatross of the educational achievement gap, Crossing the Finish Line presents an analysis of the ever-widening chasm between those who do and those who do not complete higher education. The usual factors – parental education, family income, race and gender, high school grades, test scores, financial aid, characteristics of universities attended – are all considered as the authors examine why half the undergraduates in major universities do not graduate in four years and why only three-fourths complete a degree in six years or less.

The authors address “undermatching” – when students qualified to attend a selective four-year university based on grades and test scores choose to attend less-selective institutions, two-year colleges or no college at all. The authors claim what many Latinos have long known intuitively or by experience: that undermatching might be more pervasive among minority and low-income students, subtly influencing academic persistence. They suggest that identifying students who are most vulnerable to undermatching and encouraging them to apply to more competitive schools would help increase graduation rates. Mismatching, the placement of minority students into programs that are too difficult, is also addressed later in the book. Latinos know the challenges – and the price paid – either way.

The reader can view each chapter as a self-contained document on any given retention factor, but the whole picture emerges across the entire book. The first three chapters look at demographic trends in enrollment and graduation in selective and less-selective universities. Appendix A, a companion essay, frames how universities have been shaped by demographics, commissions and policies. Group differences in major fields of study, grades and time-to-degree are examined in Chapter 4. Chapter 5 steps back to examine the roles high school factors play in college success. The success rate differences between two-year transfer students and those entering a four-year institution as freshmen are examined in Chapter 7. The balance of the book examines the policies and processes of financial aid as one more barrier, perhaps the major one, to completing a degree. The reader’s hope for closing the achievement gap lies in the implications for – and implementation of – changes in recruitment, financial aid and teaching. Finishing school is still the bottom line.