Monday, August 20, 2012

Books: Crossing the Finish Line

Bowen, William, Matthew Chingos and Michael McPherson. 2009. Crossing the Finish Line. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

This is an important and useful book. The authors have used their stature within the higher education world to obtain truly remarkable data on students at state flagship universities as well as in several entire state college systems. They have used the data to study issues related to degree completion, motivated by generally low degree completion rates among US undergraduates. The authors clearly understand that the optimal degree completion rate does not equal one for the reasons laid out in Manski's classic article: higher education is to some extent an experience good, and some people learn that it is not a good match for their talents and interests and so optimally drop out. At the same time, they argue that current completion rates are too low. The focus of the book is about how to increase the completion rate among those who presently start a college program; I would have liked to hear a bit more about how to improve completion rates by doing a better job of sorting students into post-secondary options, including the labor market, without spending huge amounts of public dollars - recall that state college tuition is always heavily subsidized and that many students receive subsidized loans and grants as well - having them experience the experience good prior to dropping out.

I particularly enjoyed and learned from the bits of the book about the predictors of college success. It turns out that high school grades do a better job of predicting college completion than do SAT or ACT test scores. This is somewhat surprising given the wide variance in high school quality, but perhaps not completely surprising given that the dependent variable is completion and that grades at any high school have a lot to say about the student's ability to show up and get things done on a regular basis over an extended period of time.

The book also devotes some attention to the "mismatch" hypothesis that worries about whether students may be less likely to complete college if they go to a college where they are in one of the tails of the ability distribution. Most of the literature until a few years ago focused on weak students at very selective colleges, usually with an eye toward affirmative action policies. More recently, the literature has started to worry about over-qualified students who attend relatively weak schools in order to save money, be with the friends, or just to party more.  The authors do a good job of documenting these phenomena in the data and explaining why over-qualification deserves at least as much attention from those who worry about such things as does under-qualification. At the same time, they could have done a better job of citing the extant literature, which dates back at least to Light and Strayer (2000) in the Journal of Human Resources. They also, at times, are not clear if the issue is mismatch or just a main effect in college quality. That is to say, if a strong student goes to a weak school, do they drop out at high rates because everyone at the weak school drops out at a high rate or because strong students at weak schools drop out differentially more than the same students would at a better college. My own (preliminary) work on this question with Eleanor Dillon of Arizona State suggests that all the action is in the main effects of college quality and student ability, but the published literature is mixed.

The final thing I would have liked to see more of in regard to mismatch is explicit cost-benefit analysis. Consider a student who decides to attend the local directional school rather than the state flagship in order to save money by living at home (and perhaps paying somewhat lower tuition as well), despite being well-qualified for the flagship. From the standpoint either of the student (and his or her family) or society, did the student make a bad decision, viewed solely in terms of expected earnings? This is less clear and would merit a more quantitative analysis.

Still, despite my quibbles, this book is an important example of the power of good data, combined with careful analysis and thoughtful interpretation, to shed light on important  issues. For those with an interest in higher education and related policy issues, it is well worth reading.

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