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

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

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

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


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 Line provides 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 Line should be read by everyone who cares about the nation's higher education system.


For reasons discussed at length in Chapter 1, educational attainment in the United States today is highly consequential. Important are both the overall level of educational attainment and disparities in educational outcomes by race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status (SES), and the kind of university a student attends. These outcomes and the forces that drive them are enormously important not only to prospective students and their parents, institutional decision makers, and policy makers but to all who care about both the economic prospects for this country and its social fabric—which is so strongly shaped by the pronounced differences in educational levels seen in relation to how one grows up. in this study, we focus on patterns of educational attainment at public universities, which educate more than two-thirds of all full-time students seeking bachelor's degrees at four-year colleges and universities.

Because our audience is the generalist as well as the specialist, we have worked hard to make the detailed findings reported in the body of the book accessible. Even so, we recognize that, as one reader put it, there is just too much here to digest in a single sitting—he said it took him four “bites of the apple.” Accordingly, a brief chapter-by-chapter reader's guide seems in order (with a discussion of databases and data-related issues at the end).

• Chapter 1 begins by describing recent trends in the overall level of educational attainment in the United States, the reasons we should be concerned about the dramatic slow-down in the building of human capital over the past 35 years, the pronounced disparities in educational outcomes that are so evident today, and why we regard these disparities as themselves grounds for serious concern. We then “introduce,” as it were, the public universities that are the primary institutional actors in this drama and locate them within American higher education. We also comment briefly on changes in the characteristics of flagship universities over the past 35 years.

• Appendix a is a separate “framing” essay, written by our colleague Eugene Tobin, which describes in far greater detail the evolution of these universities and how they have been shaped by broad demographic trends, reports of national commissions, and policies adopted by particular states (such as the California Master Plan). We refer to this rich historical content at various places in the book, and we believe that many readers will find it of independent interest.

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