Undermatching in the US: getting low-income students into college

Is there too much focus on access to the Ivy League? Paul Fain reports for Inside Higher Ed

August 5, 2015

Only a small number of top-performing high school students from low-income backgrounds get admitted to elite colleges in the US.

This so-called “undermatching” problem has gained the attention of academic researchers, the White House and the news media in recent years. Yet the studies that initially triggered this worry were focused on the much broader issue of the numerous barriers low-income students face in trying to get to college - usually a public one - and earn a degree.

research conference the American Enterprise Institute hosted on Tuesday tried to shift the “college match” conversation away from the Ivy League and back to its initial focus on more typical students and institutions. The event featured discussions of seven new working papers, which covered a wide swath of the topic.

“That are lots of reasons that undermatching is intuitively appealing,” said Andrew Kelly, director of AEI’s Center on Higher Education Reform, adding that “the discussions also felt narrow at times”.

The conference began with a look back at influential research on college choice and the academic match between students and institutions.

For example, an influential 2008 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago found that only one-third of that city’s public high school graduates who aspired to complete a four-year degree enrolled in a college that lined up with their academic qualifications.

That report was followed by Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities, a book by three prominent higher-education experts.

In the book the three authors described how academically overqualified students who enrol at colleges with lower admissions standards are less likely to eventually earn a degree than if they attend a selective university.

Mike McPherson, the president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College, was one of the book’s co-authors. At the AEI event he said it was based on students who attended competitive public institutions like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (the book looked at graduation rates at 21 flagship public universities and four statewide public systems of higher education.)

Yet McPherson said public attention to the issue became focused on how few students from rural high schools get into Harvard University. “That’s a way less important conversation,” he said, at least compared to the enrolment and graduation rate patterns of typical students at relatively selective public institutions.

Nicole Farmer Hurd is the founder and CEO of College Advising Corps, a large nonprofit group focused on college access. She agreed with McPherson during the panel discussion, saying the college-match conundrum is not just about high-achieving, low-income students.

“Every student deserves a postsecondary education,” Hurd said. “Let’s remove the judgement.”

Paul Fain is the news editor for Inside Higher Ed. This is a shortened  version of his original article.

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