by Bob Obrohta and Jenny Mills
Undermatching is the term that describes when an academically qualified student chooses to attend a higher education institution that is “less selective,” than their academic ability. The term “less selective” not only describes the academic profile of the students at an institution but it also describes a college’s retention rate and graduation rate. “Open access,” institutions, like community colleges, tend to have poorer retention rates, graduation rates, and lack the support systems necessary to address many of the barriers faced by low-income/first-generation college students. The evidence from studies shows that students who undermatch are less likely to graduate from college. Research also shows that high/higher achieving students of any socio-economic group should go to the most selective school that will admit them and that, once there, graduate at higher rates. Undermatching was first described by William Bowen (former President of Princeton University), Matthew Chingos (The Brookings Institute) and Michael McPherson (former President of Macalister College) in their book, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities. As William Bowen stated, “It’s really a waste and a big problem for the country.”
Who undermatches? While any student can undermatch, students from lower economic backgrounds, and first-generation college bound students undermatch at much higher and disproportional rates. Some studies have concluded that nearly half of all economically disadvantaged students are undermatching. One of the more well known studies comes from Stanford University professor of economics, Caroline Hoxby. Here is an article related to her research.
Why does choosing a less selective college, like a community college, negatively influence degree completion and college success if the student could attend a more selective institution?
Research has shown that students who attend more selective institutions graduate at higher rates regardless of their academic preparedness, with standardized test scores used as a proxy (see above chart). A Pell Institute study found that, “low-income, first-generation students were actually more than seven times more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees if they started in four-year institutions, but only 25 percent of them did so. A large number of low-income, first-generation students began - and ended - their studies at public two-year and for-profit institutions.” Unlike what is often assumed, affordability is not the issue since the majority of low-income students qualify for enough financial aid to cover their direct costs. Academically qualified students do not apply to more selective institutions due to a lack of information or misinformation.
Want to learn more about undermatching?
Sign up for The College Access Project Strand "Ethics of College Access Counseling," starting March 24, 2014. The College Access Project is an online professional development opportunity offered in partnership between TCASN and the Ayers Institute for Teacher Innovation at Lipscomb University’s College of Education.
Other studies and links: