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 entering college students complete a bachelor’s degree, among the worst rates in the developed world.
The latest findings may 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. But the authors focus on the phenomenon called “undermatching” — the surprisingly large number of well-qualified high school seniors with credentials to attend strong four-year colleges, but who chose other options instead — less selective schools, two-year colleges, or no college at all.
They may have had their reasons, such as staying close to home or lack of money (though more selective schools aren’t always pricier). But 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 especially susceptible.
The lack of planning and encouragement are common social factors that seem to disproportionately hit poor potential college students, but it’s also interesting to see the lack of information problem come up again and again. In so many instances, colleges have acted as though they have a vested interest in obscuring key data that would greatly help consumers, and any attempt at higher ed reform must address this.