Locating the Finish Line: Completion Several Years On

Eight years ago, William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, and Michael McPherson wrote Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities. A massive longitudinal study of student completions at a host of four-year public flagship institutions and state systems, the book was immediately recognized as an important work, a milestone in the effort to improve student outcomes and the use of data to guide higher education decision-making. It highlighted where institutions were doing well and where outcomes left much to be desired. Crossing the Finish Line made clear that there were significant disparities in student success across different kinds of institutions and across categories of race, class and gender. It set out challenges and opportunities for improving student success for all.

The authors go deep into the numbers with candor and wisdom. The book is chock full of effective arguments about what works, what does not, and why. The authors show that the theory that minority students who are supposedly “over-matched” at more selective institutions does not hold water. They prove that many more students could complete if they were enrolled at institutions that provided more services, more structure, and higher expectations for completion, things that tend to be more prevalent at more selective colleges and universities. They prove that high school grades are a much more reliable indicator of college academic success than standardized test scores – and they also make suggestions for how standardized testing could be used more effectively. The data show that most students who start at community colleges do not complete, a fact that high education knows and has wrestled with for decades. The authors also document that students who start at a community college and earn an associates degree are more likely to complete four-year degrees that those with similar test scores and backgrounds who start at four-year institutions. The study’s data indicates that nearly 50% of all withdrawals take place after sophomore year. The book makes it clear that financial aid is essential to student success. The authors also make effective arguments that how financial aid systems are organized and how financial aid information is communicated matters a great deal to students and their success. Most of the key factors shaping student success are examined in Crossing the Finish Line.

When it comes to outcomes, the data offered by the book is clear – and you can get many of their charts here. Take, for example, a study of white and Black student achievement gaps at public universities, broken down by selectivity.

Group Graduated 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%

Higher education has significant gaps in completion. Access is vitally important, but the authors show that attention to access alone will not lead to all students graduating. Giving direction to the data and arguments is a plea for higher education to be equity minded and intentional. Making the success of all students a priority can and will make a difference. This is perhaps what made – and continues to make – Crossing the Finish Line such an important work. It absolutely underscores the value of institutional intentionality when it comes to student success. Students who participated in programs designed to improve graduation rates were much more successful. Leadership, plans, programs and goals can make a tremendous difference. Crossing the Finish Line added a very important voice and perspective to a national higher education discussion.

The changes, nearly a decade on, are positive but not overwhelmingly so. National college graduation rates have been slowly and steadily improving. Looking at public institutions, for example, the first-time full-time cohort that started in 1996 had a four-year graduation rate of 30.9% and a six-year rate of 58%. Twelve years later, the national comparable cohort that started college in 2008 had a four-year rate of 41.3% and a six-year graduation rate of 60.5%. These are significant positive changes.

However, higher education has not improved outcomes across categories of race and class. Much work remains. Recent reports like this one by the National Student Clearinghouse and this one by the Education Trust highlight the gains and the gaps. We cannot, across higher education, demonstrate that students of color and those that have less money are getting the support, education, and attention so that they can complete at the same rate as other students. Improved completion numbers are encouraging, but many of the same challenges stubbornly remain.

Everyone interested in student success owes the authors of Crossing the Finish Line our collective thanks. They helped higher education take a major step toward helping more students complete. They started with the data, returned to the data, and outlined goals and strategies for ongoing improvement. That, in many ways, is the foundation of institutional effectiveness.

David Potash

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