College completion, whether a two or four-year degree or a certificate from an occupational program, is being touted by President Obama and others as essential for a robust U.S. economy and for world-wide competition for goods and services. Significant federal dollars and philanthropic monies are being invested in efforts to help young people and laid-off workers succeed in college. As businesses emerge from the recession they will be looking to college graduates for the talent needed to succeed. And yet, the goal of college completion remains elusive for many students.

A controversial new book by William B. Bowen, former President of Princeton University, Michael S.


McPherson, former President of Macalester College and currently President of the Spencer Foundation, and Matthew M. Chingos, graduate student at Harvard, titled Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, gives us some hints as to the reasons why college completion is so difficult. One of their major conclusions is that the expectation of completion has a significant effect on whether students complete or not. And this expectation is greater at some colleges than at others. This finding is consistent with the notion of “anticipation” in learning that I have written about previously.

David Glenn of The Chronicle of Higher Education writes:

One plausible hypothesis has to do with peer effects. If you're at a selective college surrounded by smart, ambitious kids, you're likely to apply yourself to your studies because that's the local norm. The classic examples here are small liberal-arts colleges. "If you go to a small college, you're part of a quote-unquote class, and everyone expects to graduate," Mr. Bowen says. "There's a lot of pressure to live up to that expectation. That's less true at a big complicated place."…Could less-selective universities somehow bottle some of the selective colleges' intensity, and thereby improve their graduation rates? "Our broad finding," Mr. McPherson says, "is that institutions that create a higher expectation of student success have higher graduation rates. And that seems like something that should operate up and down the line, for anyone who goes to school."

Colleges need to create a culture of completion just as businesses need to create a culture of learning. The significant effect of this culture might not be so much the actual degree or certificate, but rather the act of completing something important. The CEO of a large real estate company told me that he can tell the difference between sales agents who will be successful and those who will not by who has completed college and who hasn’t. He said that it’s not the knowledge that they have, it’s that they finish what they start and they have confidence in themselves. I’m not going to argue causality with him, but I do concede that college completion is an indicator of successful people.