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Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos and Michael S. McPherson, $27.95, Princeton University Press, September 2009, ISBN-10: 069113748X, ISBN-13: 978- 0691137483, pp. 392.

No sooner had the ink dried and the Sept. 9 news embargo on this book passed than it became one of the most widely reviewed and analyzed academic studies released in a long time. Within days, or hours in some cases, The New York Times, The Associated Press, varied education Web sites and many other news outlets dissected the findings. Weeks later, it was still blogged about and commented on all over the Internet.

The credentials of its authors, including Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton University and of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and McPherson, a former president of Macalester College and president of the Spencer Foundation, commanded attention. The Times called them “pillars of the education establishment.”

The media storm appears to be well deserved, based on the work the researchers put into collecting and crunching the data, as well as the illuminating summation. A quick sampling of the news reports, blogs and cyber commentary about the work, however, brings to mind the fable of the blind man explaining an elephant based on its discrete parts.

Some writers focused on the provocative finding that students who went to more selective public universities were more likely to graduate than high-caliber students who went to less-selective ones, a trend termed “undermatching.” Other articles suggested, therefore, that the nongraduates were at fault if they had opted for the less-demanding colleges, rather than the most-selective ones that would have them. Still others focused on how to close ethnic, racial, gender and income disparities in graduation rates.

A few reports grabbed onto the findings that high school grades seem to matter more in the long run as predictors of college completion than do the standardized tests colleges give so much weight to now. Some commentators played up findings that the trend toward encouraging students who ultimately want a bachelor’s degree to go first to community colleges seems to lower the odds that they will reach that goal.

All of those are valid issues examined in depth in this study, and it is difficult to summarize the many issues laid out in the report in the average news article. That said, however, the elephant in the room that was the opening premise of the report has barely been acknowledged. It is that we as a nation that once prided itself on raising the education levels of each successive generation have not been doing so for a while. As the authors note, years of schooling among Americans grew steadily from the last quarter of the 19th century until the mid-1970s. “This truly amazing record of progress came to a halt,” the report says, and educational levels have remained essentially flat ever since.

If we continue down this path by failing to produce enough well-educated workers to meet demand, the nation will be at a disadvantage in the global economy. “Crossing the Finish Line” cites a 2006 study indicating that only 56 percent of entering students were finishing college. The U.S. placed 10th among leading nations, falling from third place in 1998 and fifth place in 2001.

The authors point out that President Barack Obama is on a mission to make the U. S. first in the proportion of college graduates in its population by 2020. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 29 percent of adults 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree in 2008, up from less than a quarter of the population a decade ago.

We have a long way to go. According to the authors, less than 50 percent of undergraduates at the more prestigious public universities in the study graduate in four years, and only 77 percent do it in six years.

“In our view, too much discussion has focused on the initial access to educational opportunities (‘getting started’), rather than on attainment (‘finishing’),” the authors write.

For this report, the authors amassed data on more than 200,000 students entering public, four-year colleges – 21 highprestige “flagship” public universities and four statewide systems – in 1999. They studied the data addressing the effects of many variables, including socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity and income, on college graduation rates. The report zeroed in on public institutions because they educate two-thirds of the full-time students seeking bachelor’s degrees. This makes those schools the main path to higher education for most Americans, particularly for moderate- to low-income students.

The authors admit they found no “quick fixes” or “magic bullets” for the problems, but they suggest making college more affordable; matching students to colleges at the right level of selectivity for them; making transfers from two-year to fouryear institutions easier; developing better, content-based testing; and paying close attention to students most at risk of dropping out.

Educators should be asking, “How can we use this data, the questions raised and the conclusions of this study to make sure most of our kids get the education that we as a society need?” If the nation fails in that, the future is not going to be that bright for any of us.

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