Too many aim low on college choice, book says

Four years ago, two of the most influential researchers in higher education dove into a huge pool of data hoping to answer a bedeviling question: Why do so many students who start college fail to graduate?


They report their findings in a book out today, and perhaps the biggest is this: Students aren't aiming high enough, settling for less selective schools they imagine will be easier but where in fact they're more likely to drop out before earning a degree.

In Crossing the Finish Line , William Bowen and Michael McPherson, former presidents of Princeton University and Macalester College, along with researcher Matthew Chingos, chime in on what many experts consider American higher education's greatest weakness: college completion rates.

By some measures, fewer than six in 10 students entering college complete a bachelor's degree, among the worst rates in the developed world.

THE LATEST FINDINGS might surprise those caught up in the well-publized admissions frenzy at high-end colleges who assume all students push for the most selective school they can find. The authors focus on "undermatching" -- the large number of well-qualified high school seniors who choose instead to attend less selective schools, two-year colleges, or no college at all.

They might have their reasons, such as staying close to home or lack of money (though more selective schools aren't always pricier). The authors argue bigger factors are "inertia, lack of information, lack of forward planning for college, and lack of encouragement." The data suggest low-income and minority students, and especially those whose parents don't complete college, are most susceptible.

Examining 1999 North Carolina high school graduates who could have attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill or North Carolina State -- but instead went to less selective schools -- the authors conclude barely one-third even applied to the state's leading universities. Most of the rest got in but went elsewhere, or nowhere.

Those students who "undermatched" might have figured they would be in for an easier time. They did get higher grades, but overall paid "a high price," taking longer to move through school and graduating at a rate 15 points lower than comparably prepared students who went to more selective schools.

"We do not mean to suggest that every student should attend the most selective institution for which he or she might qualify," write the authors, but students choosing colleges below their qualifications "should not be the norm."

The research looked at 21 flagship public universities and 47 other state institutions.

IT'S WELL KNOWN THAT more selective colleges generally have higher graduation rates, but the authors say that's not simply because they get better students. They found graduation rates still varied substantially between institutions even when they controlled for academic preparation.

The authors found the explanation wasn't necessarily that selective schools were spending more money per student; rather, it was that they offered a more campus-focused experience.

Students who lived in a residence hall their first semester were 7 to 8 percentage points more likely to graduate than those who lived off-campus, even accounting for different academic credentials and backgrounds. That dovetails with other research showing students who make personal connections on campus are more likely to persist.

The findings paint a grim picture of wasted opportunities, but they suggest even relatively modest efforts to provide students more information and encouragement could substantially "increase social mobility and augment the nation's human capital."


- The SAT and ACT are of "exceedingly modest" use in predicting who will graduate from college. The authors don't suggest the tests should necessarily be abandoned, but they conclude that high school grades, AP exams and subject matter tests are more effective at predicting graduation rates. SAT and ACT scores are most helpful to more selective colleges. The findings could add momentum to a movement among colleges to no longer require students to submit SAT or ACT scores.

- Students starting at two-year schools aren't as likely to complete a bachelor's degree as comparably prepared students who start at four-year schools. Those findings cast some doubt on the wisdom of programs in several states that encourage students to start at two-year colleges, then transfer. Still, the authors urge four-year colleges to consider accepting more community college transfers; those who make it to the transfer stage do surprisingly well and could help make flagship public universities more economically and racially diverse.