Undermatching is overblown

Written by: Donald Heller

Primary Source: The Dean’s Blog

Troy Simon, a student at Bard College who was homeless as a child, is greeted by President Obama at a White House summit on college access in January (Chronicle of Higher Education)

The Chronicle of Higher Education website this morning had a feature article titled “The $6 Solution,” which focuses on a college access issue known as “undermatching.”  Undermatching is the notion that some high-achieving students, usually those from low-income families, enroll in colleges that are less-selective in admissions and below their potential skill level.  The reason undermatching matters, according to those who are researching the phenomenon, is because attending less-selective colleges generally lowers the odds that a low-income student will complete a college degree.

Even before this article in the Chronicle, undermatching had received quite a bit of publicity.  A front-page article on the phenomenon in The New York Times last March was followed by a piece in the Sunday Review section of the same paper a couple of weeks later.  In January, President Obama held a White House Summit on college access, where undermatching was prominently featured (the photo above is from that summit).

Caroline Hoxby (courtesy Stanford University)

Perhaps the most prominent researcher working on undermatching is Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University.  With colleagues, she has conducted studies (two of which can be downloaded here and here) on the issue, and in her research, has identified approximately 25,000 to 35,000 high school students around the country who fall into the category of low-income (defined by the researchers as being in the bottom quarter of the family income distribution, or $41,172 in 2008) and high-achieving (scoring in the top 10 percent nationally on the ACT or SAT college entry test).

Hoxby and her colleagues designed a randomized control experiment, where after identifying these low-income, high-achieving students, they provided some of them with targeted information about selective colleges, their prices, financial aid, and fee waivers for admissions applications.  They report impressive results; in one study, conducted with economist Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia, they found that the students who received the targeted information were more likely to apply to and attend more selective colleges which offer a higher level of institutional resources and a more rigorous curriculum.  They also found that these students earned first-year grades in college that were as high as they would have earned if they had attended a less rigorous institution, thus disputing the notion that low-income students can’t perform well in more rigorous colleges.

What is perhaps most interesting about the Hoxby-Turner study is that the intervention they tested cost a very small sum of money, only about $6 per participant, or magnitudes less than most college access programs.  They say that in the real world, it would likely cost no more than $15 per participant on a national scale to implement a program like the one they tested.  Thus, they argue, their intervention is superior to other college access programs when examined on a cost-benefit basis:

The ECO Comprehensive (ECO-C) Intervention costs about $6 per student, and we find that it causes high-achieving, low-income students to apply and be admitted to more colleges, especially those with high graduation rates and generous instructional resources. The students respond to their enlarged opportunity sets by enrolling in colleges that have stronger academic records, higher graduation rates, and more generous resources. Their freshman grades are as good as the control students’, despite the fact that the control students attend less selective colleges and therefore compete with peers whose incoming preparation is substantially inferior. Benefit-to-cost ratios for the ECO-C Intervention are extremely high, even under the most conservative assumptions (source, p. i).

While their results may sound impressive, their conclusions have not gone unchallenged.  In an article in the journal Educational ResearcherMichael Bastedo and Allyson Flaster of the University of Michigan challenged some of the assumptions in the undermatch research conducted by Hoxby and her colleagues.  For example, they questioned whether the undermatch studies could accurately determine whether a student would be admitted to a specific university based on their SAT or ACT scores alone or in combination with other academic data, such as high school GPA.  This assumption is a key component of the undermatch studies.  Bastedo and Flaster argue that the holistic admissions processes used by these highly selective universities are very complex, and that academic measures such as grades and test scores are only one part of the decision process.  In fact, it’s not unusual to hear stories of students with stellar academic credentials who nonetheless are denied admission by elite institutions (The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni discussed this issue in yesterday’s paper).

Regardless of whether the Hoxby studies are correct, or whether Bastedo and others are accurate in their criticisms, I am afraid that all of the focus on undermatched students is a distraction from the real college access issue facing the country: the millions of students from low- and moderate-income families who struggle to attend any college at all, and once there, have to work harder than their wealthier peers to persist through to a credential.  There are no more than 35,000 students applying to college each year who fall into the categories of high-achieving and low-income as identified by Hoxby and Turner.  And the reality is that because of their strong academic preparation, the vast majority of these students are going to be successful – defined as persisting through and earning a college degree, and in particular a 4-year degree – no matter where they enroll in college.  Some may argue that these students would benefit more from attending a more selective, higher-resourced institution, because the perceived quality of their degree would be greater.  But research on college returns indicates that it is not as important where one earns a degree, but that they earn one at all and in what discipline they earn it (see my blog post for more on this).

In 2008, the year Hoxby and Turner examined in their study, there were more than one million first-time students enrolled in colleges across the country who fell into the income category they used as defining “low-income” (and these numbers do not even count low-income students who graduated from high school but did not attend college).  Most of these students did not have nearly the level of academic preparation as the 35,000 students in the Hoxby-Turner study, and they are the ones who are most at risk of dropping out of college and not completing a degree.  These are the students for whom we need to develop – and fund – college access and success programs that will ensure that they have as good a chance of completing a college degree as their wealthier and better-prepared peers.

Shortly after coming into office, President Obama established the goal of returning the United States to the top spot in the world in the proportion of Americans with college degrees (we currently rank 15th).  The only way we will do this is by developing programs for students who are more at risk of dropping out of college, or not attending postsecondary education at all.  The focus on the tiny proportion of undermatched students serves only to distract us from the real needs and will do nothing to help our nation achieve this goal.

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Donald Heller
Donald E. Heller is Dean of the College of Education and a professor in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University. Prior to his appointment in January, 2012, he was Director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education and professor of education and senior scientist at The Pennsylvania State University. He also has held a faculty appointment at the University of Michigan. His teaching and research is in the areas of educational economics, public policy, and finance, with a primary focus on issues of college access and choice for low-income and minority students. He has consulted on higher education policy issues with university systems and policymaking organizations in California, Colorado, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Washington, Washington DC, and West Virginia, and has testified in front of Congressional committees, state legislatures, and in federal court cases as an expert witness. Before his academic career, he spent a decade as an information technology manager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Donald Heller

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