Lessons from Crossing the Finish Line

David M. Bressoud December 2009

William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, and Michael McPherson have just published an important book: Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities [1]. This data-driven study of the factors influencing college graduation rates at public universities is directly relevant to my earlier columns on underrepresented minorities [2,3]. Among its many accomplishments, this book documents the fact that college completion depends on more than financial means and intellectual ability. There is a significant social factor that works against those without family or peer experience with university education. While this handicap is not unique to African- and Hispanic Americans, it is particularly pronounced in these communities.

The authors not only identify the problems; they also point toward solutions. In particular, they establish that, even after controlling for intellectual ability and financial means, just being at a highly selective university greatly increases a student’s probability of graduating. Together with their analysis of honors colleges, they demonstrate the importance of being in a community that understands, expects, and supports academic excellence. Not everyone can be at an elite college or university, but it is possible to create micro-climates of excellence. This is the key idea behind the programs that Sylvia Bozeman and Carlos Castillo-Chavez described in their Capitol Hill briefing [4]. It is the critical piece of Uri Triesman’s Emerging Scholars Program [5].

The authors drew their data from 21 flagship state universities [6] plus the complete state university systems of Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, tracking all of the students who entered any of these universities in the fall of 1999, about 125,000 students in all. They examined a variety of factors, frequently controlling for several of the most influential as they examined others:

• Socioeconomic status comprised of family income and parental education,
• Student ability as measured by high school GPA, SAT/ACT, and subject tests such as SAT II and Advanced Placement,
• Type of high school (size, urban/suburban/rural, high/medium/low academic achievement),
• Race, ethnicity, and gender,
• Choice of major,
• Financial aid,
• Selectivity of the university.

Socioeconomic status is, not surprisingly, very important. What is interesting is that parental education is a far more important component of this than family income. A student from the second lowest quartile of family income with at least one parent who graduated from college has a better chance of completing college (62%) than a student whose family is in the highest income quartile but neither parent graduated from college (59%). Controlling for family income quartile, having at least one parent who graduated from college adds between 10 and 22 percentage points to a student’s probability of graduating by age 26 [1, p. 24].

Regarding student ability, the authors find that SAT/ACT scores are a poor predictor of college graduation rates. They give some useful information at the most selective universities, but the correlation quickly drops off toward zero as the selectivity decreases and actually turns negative for the least selective universities. The high school GPA is a good predictor across all types of universities, even without accounting for the quality of the high school. If it is adjusted to account for the quality of the high school, it becomes an excellent predictor [1, p. 121]. High school GPA also has the advantage that it is less highly correlated with socioeconomic status and race than are SAT/ACT scores [1, p. 127]. Success on the Advanced Placement tests is a particularly good predictor of graduation at the flagship universities and of graduation within four years [1, p. 131]. For all the problems associated with pushing ever more students into Advanced Placement classes, the fact remains that this is a very useful measure for admissions offices. The result is that a lack of access to Advanced Placement programs can seriously disadvantage a student applying to college.

Race and ethnicity are highly correlated with socioeconomic status, contributing much of the explanation of the lower graduation rates of black and Hispanic men. But even when controlling for SAT/ACT scores, high school GPA, family income quartile, state residency status, and university attended, graduation rates for black males averaged 6 percentage points lower than white males, and for Hispanic males it was 7 percentage points lower [1, p. 49]. This again emphasizes the importance of parental education and other social factors, not just the ability to meet the intellectual and financial demands of a college education.

The most interesting observation made by these authors is the importance of the selectivity of the university. It is not surprising that the more selective the university, the better the graduation rate. What is surprising is that this effect is still substantial even when controlling for SAT scores and high school GPA. At the most selective flagship universities, a student with a combined SAT score between 1000 and 1100 and a high school GPA between 3.00 and 3.33 has a 72.5% chance of graduating within six years. As selectivity decreases, so does the probability that this student will graduate within six years. It drops to only 53.5% at the least selective state universities [7, Tables 6.4–6.7].

The evidence is that more selective universities really do offer a better education. Higher expectations from faculty and peers, better educational resources, and more complete financial aid are certainly among the factors at play. The authors found evidence that overmatching (going to a university where one’s academic record is near the bottom of those accepted) still improves the probability of graduating within six years, and undermatching (choosing a less selective university when fully qualified for a more selective one) seriously decreases the probability of graduating within six years. They also found that undermatching is most prevalent among those of low socioeconomic status. The authors found that within the state of North Carolina, among highly qualified students, 64% of those whose parents had no college education chose to undermatch by enrolling in one of the state’s least selective universities [1, pp. 102–103].

One of the most important lessons from this study is the importance of the support mechanisms that, for our most privileged students, are provided by families and peers. For a myriad of reasons, it is difficult for those who are in the first generation to go to college to succeed. If we want our educational system to be an engine of social mobility, enabling those with talent to succeed, we need to pay attention to these supports. The authors speak of creating “‘sub-environments’ such as honors colleges and structured learning communities that can be used to set high expectations and create peer effects that reinforce these expectations.” [1, p. 234] These are precisely the environments created by the Emerging Scholars Programs, the MAA Strengthening Underrepresented Minority Mathematics Achievement (SUMMA) program, and the Arizona State University Institute for Strengthening the Understanding of Mathematics and Science (SUMS).

[2] Bressoud, David. 2009. MAA Speaks Out on Capitol Hill. Launchings. MAA Online.

[3] ———. 2009. MAA Speaks Out on Capitol Hill. MAA Focus. vol. 29, no. 6, pp. 10–11.

[4] Advocacy and Public Policy Efforts of the Mathematical Association of America. MAA Online.

[5] Eric Hsu, Teri J. Murphy, and Uri Triesman, Supporting High Achievement in Introductory Mathematics Courses: What We Have Learned from 30 Years of the Emerging Scholars Program, pages 205–220 in Marilyn Carlson and Chris Rasmussen, editors, Making the Connection: Research and Teaching in Undergraduate Mathematics Education, MAA Notes #73, Mathematical Association of America, Washington, DC, 2008.

[6] University of California-Berkeley, University of California-Los Angeles, University of Maryland-College Park, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers University, University of Florida, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Texas-Austin, University of Washington, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Iowa State University, Ohio State University, Purdue University, Stony Brook University, University of Iowa, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Oregon.

[7] Appendix tables at



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David Bressoud is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and President of the MAA. You can reach him at This column does not reflect an official position of the MAA.