Sunday, September 20, 2009

Q&A: Minority, low-income students need to aim higher

By Mary Beth Markein, USA TODAY

William Bowen, Matthew Chingos and Michael McPherson had already begun their study of graduation data at public colleges and universities when President Obama this year challenged America to lead the world in educational attainment by 2020. Now, they hope findings, published today in Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities by Princeton University Press, will help achieve that goal.

The authors found that minorities and students from poor or less educated families have markedly lower graduation rates and take longer to earn degrees than their more privileged peers. That's true even when other variables, including academic qualifications, are taken into account. Their bottom-line advice: Students should enroll in the most selective college that will admit them. But the authors also argue for improved transfer and financial aid policies and better efforts to help students identify colleges that will challenge them. They spoke with USA TODAY about the findings.

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Q: You use the term "undermatch" to describe a student who appears to be eligible for a more selective college than the one where they enrolled. Why is undermatching a problem?

Bowen: It is sort of counterintuitive. You would think a student with reasonable qualifications would be more likely to graduate by going to a school where they're not up against super-prepared kids, where there's less competition. One argument against affirmative action has been that African-American students get discouraged at places that are too tough for them and drop out. But we found no evidence to support that. Going to a place where you're challenged increases outcomes. Now, there may be good reasons for undermatching, but this should not be the norm. Yet data in North Carolina suggest that 40% of students undermatch by going to a less selective four-year university, to a two-year college, or to no college.

Q: You argue for better advising for high school students. What about cost? Selective schools tend to have higher sticker prices.

McPherson: If you look at the net price, after allowing for loans and grants, it turns out that in many cases the flagships, for example, may be cheaper for low-income students than less selective institutions in the state. But financing has to be in place and unambiguous. Some relatively vague promise that families will be able to afford a particular school is probably not a message that most lower- and moderate-income families are going to believe. One answer is to make the financial aid system simpler and more reliable. Another is making sure you get the money to the right people. If this country wants to have more college graduates, we have to do better for low- and moderate-income students.

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Q: Why do you recommend that financial aid focus on need rather than merit?

McPherson: We simply don't find evidence that merit aid helps people graduate. Our data suggest money matters a lot to low-income people. Affluent people may feel the pain, but they still enroll and graduate. Still, you do need to design programs that are responsive to the genuine need that's out there, and it's perfectly reasonable to say that plenty of families (with high incomes) have need that should be met by a combination of grants and loans. But there's no way to sugarcoat the fact that people who really can afford to pay for college need to be asked to help pay for it.

Q: The message on community colleges seems mixed. On one hand, you say students who earn a two-year degree and transfer to a four-year school are more likely to graduate than similarly qualified peers who began their studies at the four-year institution. But you encourage students who want to earn a bachelor's degree to start at a four-year university.

Bowen: We're not trying to toot the horn of the most selective places. But if you're a well-qualified student who wants a bachelor's degree, the data are just relentless in showing that your chances of getting a degree are much higher if you start at a four-year college. What we're trying to say is, 'Let's give poor kids who are qualified, who have done very well, the same array of choice that a comparable kid from a wealthy family gets.' That's, to me, fairness. That's what social mobility is all about.

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This is not to say we shouldn't do more for community colleges. We should. But we should not expect those efforts to solve the problem of raising the number of people with bachelor's degrees. At the same time, states need to do a better job of helping students transfer from two-year to four-year schools.

Q: Critics of standardized tests will love your finding that high school grade point averages are better predictors of college graduation rates than SAT or ACT scores.

Bowen: We're not saying get rid of the tests. If you don't have a lot of knowledge of the high school from which you're admitting students, they can be helpful. But what is so striking here is that while high school grades are a better predictor within every set of public colleges and university they're a vastly better predictor at the less selective ones. We now think we actually understand why. Even at high schools that are not very demanding academically, getting a 3.8 GPA tells you that the student can persevere, has got some motivation, some time-management skills and some cognitive skills, and aren't those things going to relate to graduating? Of course they are. We all know intuitively that stick-to-it-iveness matters.

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