Book by William G. Bowen, Matthem M. Chingos & Michael S. McPherso
Review by Joshua L. Brittingham
College of Education & Human Services Advising Center
Northern Kentucky University

Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities shares the findings of a study of the academic progress of students in the 1999 entering cohort at 21 flagship institutions and four statewide university systems. Bowen, Chingos and McPherson write that their purpose was, “To search for clues about ways to make America’s colleges and universities more successful in moving entering students on to graduation” (p.19). 

To achieve that purpose the authors sought to identify areas where gaps exist in educational attainment in the institutions that were included in their study. They focused on a wide variety of characteristics of students, such as race, gender, socio-economic status, high school grades and standardized test scores. They looked at these characteristics within in the context of institutional factors such as selectivity and price. After looking at the issue from those many angles, Bowen, Chingos and McPherson were able to conclude that black men, Hispanic students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds (p.207) displayed particularly large disparities in educational attainment and represent the greatest opportunity for improvement of the overall rate.

The information in this book can be useful to advisors in the sense that the authors’ findings can help us identify the students that we advise that are at the greatest risk of not completing a bachelor’s degree. Advisors should be careful to consider the information in the context of the authors’ finding that students in the 1999 cohort withdrew from college at a rate that remained fairly steady throughout years two through six of their college experience (pp.33-36). Based on this finding, Bowen, Chingos & McPherson warned that this, “…is a clear reminder that persistence cannot be viewed as simply a function of students’ completing their first two years” (p.35). As advisors, we would be wise to take that assertion as a reminder that the authors’ conclusions on the types of students that experience the largest gaps in academic attainment are not just useful for early identification or helping students get started off on the right foot, but rather also as something that we need to be mindful of clear through to the point where a student “crosses the finish line” by graduating.

This book is a compelling snapshot of the state of four-year public higher education and its greatest areas for improvement. It is broad in scope, both in the amount of information it makes available and in the recommendations the authors give in light of that information. This book is highly recommended to anyone who wants to be in touch with the latest literature and trends in student retention and persistence at the national level. From a practical standpoint though, it has more to offer to administrators and policymakers than to advisors, and it is recommended to look elsewhere for a text to use as a “go-to” reference to inform advising practice.

Crossing the finish line: Completing college at America’s public universities. (2009). Book by William G. Bowen, Matthem M. Chingos & Michael S. McPherson. Review by Joshua L. Brittingham Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 392pp. $27.95 ISBN # 978-0-691-13748-3
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