Crossing the Finish Line

by Harry on September 12, 2009

William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, and Michael McPherson have just published Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities. [1] I’ll be posting about it at some length in the coming week (it seems to be the book that everyone is reading, so if you’re not, you can learn why everyone is, and if you are you can discuss. Anyway, highly recommended). Here is a (free-to-non-subscribers) op-ed they did last week in the Chronicle to give you a sense of what the book is about (you might want to avoid the less than brilliant comments the op-ed attracts). I’ll be focusing on their discussions of undermatching (point 5) and the predictive powers of high school GPAs (point 6):

5. But money is by no means the entire story, perhaps not even the largest part. Student’s choices of where to apply to college are enormously important. A surprisingly large number of students—especially those from poor families and those who are African-American or Hispanic—”undermatch.” That is, they go to less demanding four-year institutions than they are qualified to attend, to two-year colleges, or to no college at all. For example, 59 percent of students in the bottom quartile of family income undermatch; 27 percent in the top quartile do so. In addition, 64 percent of students whose parents have no college education undermatch, compared with 41 percent of those whose parents have college degrees and 31 percent whose parents have graduate degrees (see Figure 3). Undermatching has serious consequences because there is a strong association between institutional selectivity and B.A.-completion rates: Students with essentially the same qualifications who attend more-selective universities have a considerably higher probability of graduating than do comparable students who attend less selective universities. Our data also confirm the results of other studies that show that students whose objective is to earn a B.A. are much less likely to do so if they start at a two-year college (again, other things equal).

6. “Sorting” of applicants by universities, especially overreliance on standardized tests, is consequential and problematic. We are not opposed to testing per se. Standardized tests can be helpful when used in the right ways and in the right settings. They are especially helpful when used with high-school grades to predict college grades at the most selective universities. It is clear, however, that high-school grades are far better predictors of graduation rates, especially at less selective universities. This finding holds even when we do not take account of differences in the quality of the high school that a student attended. Results of achievement tests, especially scores on Advanced Placement tests, are also good predictors. Both grades and achievement-test scores measure not only cognitive achievement but also coping and time-management skills—which, we surmise, affect completion rates.

[1] Full disclosure — one of the authors is a good friend, with whom I co-direct the Spencer Foundation’s Initiative on Philosophy in Educational Policy and Practice.



matt wilbert 09.12.09 at 8:05 pm

The editorial doesn’t explain how they distinguish between people going to less selective (and presumably less expensive) schools because of money, as opposed to just coming from poorer families? I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but my impression was that people “undermatched” or went to 2-year schools primarily because of money. Certainly that is generally the case with the people I know who are currently in school. Do they have an alternate explanation for undermatching?


Matt 09.12.09 at 8:10 pm

When I read some bit from the (maybe in the NY times or somewhere else- I can’t remember where) a few days ago the focus was on this “undermatching” bit. But it seems likely to me that this is just subsuming a whole lot of different variables that work in different ways for different people, but are the real causal factors. For example, many students will “undermatch” _because_ of money differences (that was my story, for example), and the lack of money can then be the reason for not completing the degree- the student has to work too much, can’t afford tuition, etc. But it won’t be “undermatching” that does any explanatory work in such a case, or very little of it. This will be so for many other factors, too. But at least in the sections I looked at the authors seemed to just ignore this and wanted to treat “undermatching” as itself explanatory. That seems very unlikely to me, so I hope that they at least try to figure out what the real causes are in the longer version.


Cranky Observer 09.12.09 at 8:52 pm

> . A surprisingly large number of students—especially those
> from poor families and those who are African-American or
> Hispanic—”undermatch.” That is, they go to less demanding
> four-year institutions than they are qualified to attend

That’s a bit naive, I think.

I just finished this process with #1 child (I’ll use the pronoun he for this post). He was accepted at several schools, including one ranked in the top 5 by both USN&WR and Washington Monthly, and the school I graduated from which is in the USN&WR top 10. (proud parent moment).

He ended up attending a land-grant state university. Partly that was due to the program he preferred which is rare. However, he could have created that program with a double major at my old university (and he was admitted to both of the schools required to do that). But mostly it was due to the fact that both of the top universities carefully crafted a “financial aid package” that would have not only used up all the money we had saved for both #1 and #2 child but would have left my spouse and I destitute at age 65. And this was not a coincidence, as an article in the NYT Magazine last spring explained: that is exactly what the colleges (both of which are sitting on endowments in the 2-digit billions, at least before Madoff) set out to do with their “aid” algorithms.

The “financial aid” people claim that this is a matter of fairness. Personally, I suspect it is something else: class sorting. Those who control the elite universities were dismayed by the period of 1950-1980 when too many of the wrong types of people, donchaknow, ended up at the top colleges, making them much less useful as upper-class networking and marriage services.

To fix this, they have spent the years from 1980-2010 creating a 3-tier system. Truly indigent applicants with the test scores to get in are given essentially free rides. This doesn’t matter since they will not enter the upper classes for 2-3 generations if ever. The upper classes themselves just write a check for the full amount, plus a donation for the annual fund, and their children are ready to go with both their educational and social agendas.

And finally, the middle classes (white, pink, or blue collar) with children capable of being admitted are faced with a choice: do they want to get the education, name value, and distant possibilities of networking and social interaction with the upper classes from the top-ranked schools at the price of bankrupting themselves (and given the loan component possibly their children as well)? Or do they want to “settle” for a college which might be as good or better a place to get an eduction as the name schools, but which will provide networking and social opportunities only within the same class structure – to perpetuate a glass ceiling in future jobs and mates?

And to a lesser extent this cycle is now repeating itself at the (US) state schools as budget cuts force them to raise their tuition and reduce aid, locking out the next class down that might have wanted to network with those above.

I just don’t see how it is possible to analyze the current situation with US university admissions, and particularly their level of tuition remission (“financial aid”) matrixed against the size of their endowments, without considering the class sorting function of those universities as they existed in 1910, 1950, 1980, and today. Yet even mentioning that topic is forbidden in any field related to college admissions and university sociology.



Salient 09.12.09 at 10:29 pm

Students with essentially the same qualifications who attend more-selective universities have a considerably higher probability of graduating than do comparable students who attend less selective universities.

This elephant has been sitting around in the room for a long time now.

Unfortunately, I give it about sixty seconds before folks, especially folks who have never consulted with students who are thinking about quitting school, try to claim that this is largely because more-selective universities cost more and the cost motivates students to not lose out on their investment.

I’d hypothesize (and look forward to finding data that falsifies/corroborates this hypothesis in the book) that student self-confidence is an overwhelming factor, rivaling even financial concerns, for students who are considering undermatching themselves. And student self-confidence can be addressed at the local level in ways that financial concerns can’t.*

I look forward to reading this book, and I’m hoping the authors go into greater detail about why students choose to undermatch (if it is indeed typically a deliberate/intentional choice). It surprises me that money is not the core concern for undermatching students.

I’m also hoping to see a thorough discussion of why incoming students want to attend college, with a comparison of motivations/ to dropout rates. What do various students want or expect from a university education, and if students are grouped according to their stated expectations, do we see correlation with dropout rates?

*This is not a head-nod to “you can do it” arbitrary motivation.** Tailored communication to high school students that clarifies what they ought to expect to experience in college, what the universities’ various expectations will be, and what steps they can take to ensure their own success, can impact student self-confidence. It’s easier to envision yourself fitting in at Ivy U. if you have some reliable means for establishing a realistic vision of Ivy U. itself.

**Though even a generic motivational message from respected figures, consistently delivered over long periods of time, is known to reliably improve general self-confidence.


vivian 09.13.09 at 1:04 am

In my experience, the big difference between the more selective schools and more affordable state schools was in the effort the school put into helping us graduate. The deans and support staff at the prestigious schools put a lot of time and effort into getting students to take a year off rather than quit, and into helping them transition back into classes and on to graduation. A friend who dropped out over money got considerable help finding a job that was more of a well-paid internship than burger-flipping job, and was able to come back and graduate. In contrast, a friend who went to Berkeley was wait-listed for a dorm room, and told to expect that since some shockingly big fraction of students drop out during the first term, that he’d be in a dorm by January. Now, presumably the hope of future donations is a rational incentive for private schools to ensure high graduation rates. And money troubles can be much worse for kids from poor families (and one hears that there are race/class factors in how helpful some deans are). And of course, self-confidence and social reinforcers of it are pretty critical. But I bet there is more the less-prestigious schools could do to raise the graduation rates, especially for the kids who (based on grades) ought to be their stars, whatever their background.


SIWOTI 09.13.09 at 2:55 am

Hmm… the “undermatching” in this study is between students and *public* universities.

We present data for all members of the 1999 entering cohorts at 21 flagship universities and at all 47 four-year public universities in four states: Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia.

So somehow I think the financial, classist, etc., concerns expressed here are less relevant — one cannot bankrupt one’s family earning a BA at a public institution. On the other hand, the chronicle piece at least seems not to be arguing that undermatching is a concern, but rather that because of differential undermatching, the impact of SES is understated in the data.


Salient 09.13.09 at 3:31 am

But I bet there is more the less-prestigious schools could do to raise the graduation rates, especially for the kids who (based on grades) ought to be their stars, whatever their background.

True, importantly true. In mentioning self-confidence as a factor for undermatching, I hadn’t meant to crowd out other factors for dropout rate.

One thing I’ve noticed, since teaching at university, is just how many students experience a life trauma over the course of the semester. Is it a consequence of moving away from home for the first time? Or is the rate of life trauma just higher in the young adult population than one might presuppose?

I’d say anywhere from 5-15% of my students each semester go through something severe (and verifiable) like unexpected eviction, break-up which necessitates moving to a new place, loss of job that they needed to support themselves, accident which results in broken limb, hospitalization, parent dying, etc.

I’ve yet to talk with a student who already knew there actually does exist a help center at my university, a kind of adviser network, designed to consult with these students and ease their transition away from, and back to, focus on their studies. It’s meager and understaffed, but the university has also established an “alarm” system that instructors can use to alert the fine folks there that a student may be in distress. The help center is an unqualified good and is possibly one of the best undergraduate resources I am familiar with at the university — but it is horribly underfunded and probably relies overmuch on the participation of overworked college advisers and instructors.


magistra 09.13.09 at 7:57 am

One possible way of separating out the finanical causes of ‘undermatching’ from other effects (lack of information, fears that one won’t fit in) is to compare with the current UK system. Here, to go to a ‘top’ university (Oxbridge/Russell group) costs the same as to go to a less prestigious university, but there’s still an issue of well-qualified students from lower social backgrounds being less likely to apply to such universities. The Sutton Trust have done research on this, for example.


otto 09.13.09 at 12:36 pm

Cranky Observer: thanks for sharing that with us. Very tough choices.

For many in the US professional classes, paying for higher ed. for the children is one of these really tough issues, which amounts to a very considerable ‘% of assets/future earnings’ charge, which has a great deal to do, I think, with the feeling-they-are-poor of the American upper-middle-classes.


Matt 09.13.09 at 1:35 pm

the “undermatching” in this study is between students and public universities… somehow I think the financial, classist, etc., concerns expressed here are less relevant

Less relevant, surely, but not irrelevant. First, in many states the “flagship” universities are more expensive. This is especially so when there are explicit “tiers”, as in California between the UC school, the Cal State schools, and the community colleges. Additionally, the cost difference between when you can live with your family or live in a dorm is still significant, significant enough that if you are fairly poor or not very savvy about financing higher education this seems like a big and important difference. (In Washington state, to take an example at random, if you live on-campus at WSU it costs $19,110 on the figures I could find, but only $7,778 for an off-campus student. Tuition at Central Washington University for an in-state resident is $4841 (plus some fees that I didn’t want to add up, but that seem to be a few hundred dollars tops). So, if you live close to Central Washington University you can go there for close to $15,000 per year less than it would cost to go to WSU, and I’m sure it’s even more to go to UW. That seems like small money to someone who would seriously consider paying $40,000/year to go to college, but the vast majority of people do not pay close to that amount. To many people, including, I’d guess, many people who do not finish, $15,000/year is a significant difference. But when you’re someone to whom this difference is very salient, then life-disruptions (loss of job, medical problem in the family, car breaks down, etc.) can make you unable to pay for school for a semester or more very easily. (I saw this sort of thing regularly in the university I went to as an undergrad, and even in my own family.) So, I strongly suspect that financial considerations are still playing a strong part, especially among those most likely to not finish anyway. I don’t think this is the whole answer. Salient’s point is important, and I think there are likely many other factors, too. My worry is that, in the amount of the study I’ve seen, at least, these factors seem to all be lumped under “under-matching”, when it’s the quite disparate underlying factors that are causally important. If that’s so, then focusing on “undermatching” will mislead more than enlighten. It’s quite possible, though, that this is all addressed in sufficient detail in the full work.


bianca steele 09.13.09 at 2:39 pm

It’s interesting that their results are pretty much the opposite of the standard media narrative to the effect that there is a problem with students overmatching and then not able to cope with the better education people who went to better (more expensive) schools received. The natural response is to re-emphasize the class sorting function of the tiered university system.

Some people have mentioned California. On the east coast, however, and the upper midwest, the very wealthy and very well educated, except the well educated who are poor, do not attend public universities at all. The flagship universities have been upgraded, though, to match the top-tier flagship state universities elsewhere, and in Massachusetts the former “normal schools,” or teacher training schools, have been upgraded to the status of second-tier public universities. For those in different parts of the country, except for those about to delve into statistics and methods, their conclusions may not be informative.


Salient 09.13.09 at 3:04 pm

It’s quite possible, though, that this is all addressed in sufficient detail in the full work.

Devotes 25+ pages to the topic, so I’d imagine so. It’s worth emphasizing that Michael McPherson is one of the book’s authors; for those unfamiliar, he has co-written several extensive, authoritative books on “financial considerations” and the role that government aid plays (or can play) in making higher education attainable (see here and here for examples; I owe his work a considerable debt for clearing up some of my deepest idealistic naivete with regard to this topic).

Of course, there’s only so much insight to be gained by hoping, imagining, & hypothesizing. Looking forward to receiving my copy of Crossing the Finish Line in the mails soon; hopefully I will have time to read the book before Harry’s next posts. :-)


Z 09.14.09 at 10:47 am

Like Magistra, I would like to point out that undermatching is a well-known and well-studied phenomenon in France as well, where most of secondary education is essentially free, and where prestigious institutions, with rare exceptions, are actually cheaper than less prestigious ones.


Peter 09.14.09 at 2:06 pm

Second- and third-tier public universities are also known as “directionals,” as their names often include a compass direction: Northern Tennessee State University, Western Kansas College. An alternative is the “at [city name]”, for instance University of Massachusetts at Springfield.

[ all of these examples are fictional, didn’t want to insult anyone]


Doctor Science 09.14.09 at 3:23 pm


What do the people who study it think causes French under-matching? My guess is “a desire to stay closer to home”, but that’s just a guess. Are linguistic factors (i.e. what language or patois is spoken in the home) a factor?


Ray Davis 09.15.09 at 7:40 pm

Salient, financial constraints and student confidence aren’t independent factors. If my financial risk had been greater, I might have decided not to risk an elite school for fear of losing my investment. (At that elite school, similar fears led me to avoid a few tough — but worthwhile — classes so as not to lose financial aid due to low GPA.)


Bunbury 09.15.09 at 7:54 pm

Magistra, it’s not really true that Russell Group and Oxbridge cost the same as other universities. They may be further from home, they may have four year courses instead of three, there’s the cost of sub fusc, they tend to be in more expensive locations and then there’s keeping up with the Jones’s — there are a lot of people obviously having a lot of fun being rich at Oxford and many also frown on students having term time jobs.


Bunbury 09.15.09 at 7:57 pm

Z, I’m not sure about this but don’t the students at the Grandes Ecoles normally go after a year or so of additional preparation?


Z 09.16.09 at 8:47 am

@Doctor Science

Apart from former colonies scattered everywhere in the world but formally part of the french state, I don’t think the factors you mention are very significant: France is a small country


Z 09.16.09 at 9:05 am

@Doctor Science

Apart from former colonies scattered everywhere in the world but formally part of the french state, I don’t think the factors you mention are very significant: France is a small country and patois have disappeared in 1920s. Besides, undermatching is alive and well in the Paris area, where distance can certainly not be a problem. As for the reasons, I am not an expert. I seem to recall that lack of information played a role, but that an even bigger one was that talented students from poor or uneducated backgrounds and families tend to judge their abilities to succeed in some academic institution not based on their results but rather on whether they think they will be able to duplicate the strategies they used to succeed in high school. Now, presumably talented students from richer and more educated families do exactly the same, but because elite institutions value the strategies of students from elite backgrounds (almost by definition), this strategy works for them.


In most cases, after 2 years of additional preparation, but because this additional preparation takes place in a usual state-owned high school (albeit maybe one with a prestigious name), it is (with very rare exception) very cheap (essentially free by american standards). And lodging and food will usually be provided to students from poor backgrounds for a very reasonable price, again essentially freely by american standards. After these two years, a fair number or school actually pay their students, and most of them are very cheap (I don’t keep up with the numbers but 5000€ a year would be already considered expensive, I think). All in all, and even though the factors you mention @17 are certainly true, I think that my characterisation was reasonably correct: more prestigious academic careers tend to be cheaper in France than less prestigious ones, yet some students undermatch.

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