(Not) Crossing the Finish Line

New book finds large gaps in graduation rates at flagship universities, raising questions about how rates are measured, standardized tests, "mismatch" critique of affirmative action, community colleges, and more.
September 9, 2009

America's flagship public universities are failing to graduate enough students in four (or even six) years and are doing too little to improve the completion rates of low-income and minority students, especially black males, according to a much awaited book being released today.

Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities is based on a database tracking what happened to students who entered 21 flagship universities in 1999, as well as a comparative database with information on several statewide higher education systems. The information available for the study was detailed enough for the authors to track not only graduation rates, but many other issues. For instance, the book raises questions about the value of the six-year emphasis of the federal rate, the inability of public universities to do a better job of graduating some subsets of their students, the role of standardized testing, the use of merit aid and the ability of community college students to transfer.

The authors of the book -- published by Princeton University Press -- are William G. Bowen, president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton University; Matthew M. Chingos, a Ph.D. student in government at Harvard University and a research associate at Mellon; and Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College.

While the authors include the former presidents of two private institutions, and the book notes the relative success of private, residential colleges in graduating students, the authors are emphatic that the United States cannot improve overall educational attainment unless there are significant changes in public higher education -- because that is where most students enroll. "Public universities have to be the principal engines," the book says. And the "only way" they can succeed at this task, the authors write, is through a renewed push to close gaps in graduation rates that exist among racial, ethnic and economic groups.

At the same time, the authors are calling for attitudinal changes -- by students and those who run universities -- so that four-year graduation is seen as the standard all are expected to meet. In fact, the study found that at less selective flagships, only about a third of students are graduating in four years, and that totals in less selective university systems are about one quarter.

In an interview, Bowen cited an anecdote that to him typifies the flawed culture at many institutions that considers it perfectly normal to graduate in six years. "At a very highly regarded flagship university, when you talk there to students about graduation rates, you can be told, as we were told by one person, 'graduating in four years is like leaving the party at 10 o'clock,' " he said.

Here are overall figures from the study, with both flagships and state systems divided by admissions selectivity, with the more selective on the top of each category. (A list of the flagships studied, and their selectivity grouping, may be found here.)

Graduation Rates by Selectivity

Sector Graduated in 4 Years Graduated in 5 or 6 Years Total in 6 Years
Flagships (most selective) 65% 21% 86%
Flagships (mid level of selectivity) 52% 28% 80%
Flagships (less selective) 33% 33% 66%
State systems (more selective) 54% 23% 77%
State systems (less selective) 26% 25% 51%

While the federal calculation of graduation rates is based on six years, Bowen said it was important to start to focus on the four-year rate. If programs require four years of work, he said, students should be able to get through them in four. "The costs to the higher education system and to the students are very high" of letting six years become a normal time to degree, Bowen said.

He acknowledged that the residential, private colleges that tend to have graduation rates in the 90s have the benefits of small size and the money to spend on outreach efforts to encourage graduation in four years. But he said that evidence from the databases showed that large universities that use small units to divide students, and that have significant residence life and a sense of community (as many do with honors colleges), are having more success than other larger universities at graduating students in four years.

He acknowledged that many large research universities -- especially now -- are limited in resources and won't match the per-student spending levels of elite liberal arts colleges. But he said that the question isn't of trying to become a small college, but "to find ways to mimic them."

And a big part of that is expectations, he said. "A key question is how hard does an institution push to get students through in four?"

One of the major themes of the book is of the importance of disparities -- and the need to be precise about them. For all flagships, the following table shows significant gaps among male students, and much smaller gaps among female students, with Asian-American students having the highest graduation rates for both groups, and black students the lowest rates. Asian women at flagship universities are in fact more likely to graduate within four years than are black men in six years.

Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Graduation Rates at Flagship Universities

Group Graduated in 4 Years Graduated in 5 or 6 Years Total in 6 Years
--White 42% 33% 75%
--Black 26% 33% 59%
--Hispanic 32% 34% 66%
--Asian 47% 31% 78%
--White 56% 23% 79%
--Black 45% 27% 72%
--Hispanic 48% 28% 76%
--Asian 60% 25% 85%

Selectivity adds further to the racial gaps, as this table from the book shows, in comparing black and white students, with gender breakdowns, at different groupings of flagship universities by admissions selectivity.

Black-White Gaps at Flagship Universities, by Selectivity

Group Graduated in 4 Years Graduated in 5 or 6 Years Total in 6 Years
--White at most selective 54% 22% 86%
--Black at most selective 33% 32% 65%
--White at mid level of selectivity 46% 33% 79%
--Black at mid level of selectivity 27% 32% 59%
--White at least selective 27% 38% 65%
--Black at least selective 14% 35% 49%
--White at most selective 76% 14% 89%
--Black at most selective 59% 22% 81%
--White at mid level of selectivity 61% 23% 84%
--Black at mid level of selectivity 42% 30% 72%
--White at least selective 41% 29% 70%
--Black at least selective 29% 30% 59%

Mismatch or 'Undermatch'?

The large gaps in graduation rates, especially for black men, are an issue of great concern to the authors. And they note that some might look at these figures and see evidence for the "mismatch" theory that is popular with many critics of affirmative action. That theory holds that students from various minority groups are not well served by being admitted to highly competitive colleges with grades and test scores that are lower than those of other admitted applicants. These students -- as evidenced by lower graduation rates -- don't experience academic success as they might at less competitive institutions, the theory holds.

The new book argues that it has conclusive evidence to debunk mismatch theory. The authors used data from their database to compare black men with high school grade-point averages below 3.0 who enrolled in the most selective flagships and those who enrolled in less selective flagships and the least selective flagships. What the authors found was that these students -- who mismatch theory would suggest would do better at less competitive institutions -- actually are most likely to graduate at more competitive flagships. The graduation rate for this cohort of black males at the three selectivity levels of flagships is (starting from the most selective), 46 percent, 40 percent, and 38 percent. So these black males benefit significantly from being at the more competitive institutions.

In the interview, Bowen said that this is more evidence of the powerful impact of peer expectations and institutional expectations at more competitive institutions. The message for black males (and other minority groups) is not to be scared off by alleged mismatches but to "go to the best place that will admit you."

The book also argues that the existence of programs in which black students are admitted, held to very high standards, but also given support services and a supportive environment -- and then thrive -- shows that success is possible with the right combination of factors. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County is cited as an example in not only educating hundreds of black and other minority students, but in sending them off to top graduate programs in math and science.

The obvious question that the authors then pose, given the success at UMBC, is why this isn't taking place elsewhere. While the book says that the program's features "could certainly be copied," it adds that the efforts are expensive and have benefited from a strong leader in Freeman Hrabowski, UMBC's president, championing the program.

Most black students not only aren't ending up at UMBC, the book notes, but they aren't in fact ending up at the most challenging institution they could get into. Using GPA and other measures in the state systems examined, the book argues that there is considerable "undermatching" going on -- with minority students in particular not applying to the most competitive institutions that would admit them.

This is the problem, the authors argue, not mismatch. "The way to improve graduation rates and other outcomes for black men is not to discourage them from enrolling in academically strong programs.... On the contrary, more presumptively well-qualified black men should be encouraged to 'aim high' when deciding whether and where to to pursue educational opportunities after high school," they write.

Testing and Its Value

Another area that the book examines with its database is the relative predictive value of grades and standardized tests like the SAT and ACT on predicting college graduation rates. The overall conclusion of the section is that high school grades have more predictive value than do standardized tests, and that the additional predictive value from tests is quite small (although slightly greater at the most competitive institutions).

The finding could be significant for several reasons. First the authors intentionally go to a new measure of testing validity -- graduation rates -- rather than focusing on the measure used by the College Board for predictive validity of the SAT, which is first-year grades. Bowen said that since the goal should be graduation (and on time graduation), testing should be measured in that way.

While the limited value they find for testing might be seen as an anti-testing stance, the authors are careful not to go there. They say that they don't want to focus on "to test or not to test" but on how testing could or should be used. Generally, the book offers praise for the SAT II (the subject tests) and the Advanced Placement tests, noting that both of these tests are based on what students actually learn in academic areas.

Bowen said that "we're not anti-testers," but that colleges -- especially those that aren't at the most competitive levels -- need to "think about weighting" so that it's clear that "if you have done well in high school, but not on the SAT," you can enroll, he said.

What the book does suggest is wrong, however, is the use of a test like the SAT as the sole or even dominant admissions criterion. Asked about the National Merit Scholarship Program, on which semifinalist status is based entirely on PSAT scores, Bowen said that based on the evidence in the book, "I'm highly skeptical that it makes any sense."

The Transfer Route

Yet another area explored with the database (and this article leaves out still many others) is the subject of community college transfers. Here the book offers a very mixed message.

First it says that its data on student progression suggest that high school seniors who want to earn a bachelor's degree are less likely to do so if they start at community colleges than if they enroll at a four-year institution. But second, the analysis of the database finds that of those community college students who transfer to selective flagships, they graduate at the same rate as those who enrolled at those institutions as first-time freshmen. This parity is more impressive, the book notes, considering that the transfers were more likely than those who started at the universities to be from low-income families and more likely to have not had great pre-college academic credentials.

Bowen said that, from a policy perspective, the findings leave him thinking that "investing more heavily in community colleges is wise," but he added that it may not be wise to assume that community college transfers "are going to solve the B.A. completion problem." He said that he was particularly concerned about state systems -- such as California's -- where four-year campuses have not kept up with student demand. Having a strong community college system, he said, "is no substitute for providing the places in four-year institutions."

Of course California is not the only state cutting budgets -- and doing so in ways that may undercut many of the sorts of initiatives that might deal with some of the issues the new book discusses. Outreach to low-income and minority students, scholarships, academic advising, better residential facilities and more -- all of these cost money.

"I think it's very serious," said Bowen of the trends today. "I think the country is underspending on the major public universities. No question about it, and the consequences will be serious."

But he also stressed that much in the book -- especially related to expectations -- concerns philosophies that don't necessarily have price tags. "If the expectation is 'all of you who entered together are going to graduate together,' that just is different from being in a situation where there are no such expectations."


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