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“Undermatching”
March 17, 2013 - 9:47pm

I get a little twitchy whenever I read about “undermatching” as a problem.

Broadly, “undermatching” is the claim that high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds often attend colleges that are “beneath” them academically, and that therefore they miss certain kinds of opportunities. If only the elites were more thoughtful about reaching the masses, the argument goes, they’d do a better job of creating a pure meritocracy, and the talented tenth (or twentieth, depending on taste) wouldn’t be shackled to institutions built for the unwashed masses.

Humph.

The whole framework around “undermatching” assumes a lot.

At one level, it assumes a really unproblematic caste system in higher ed.  On this view, the prestige hierarchy is written into nature to such a degree that community colleges that enroll high-caliber students are portrayed as problems.  They’re violating the natural order of things.  Or, more charitably, they’re symptoms of the failures of elite institutions to do their meritocratic job.

In my observation, anyone who puts too much faith in a Great Chain of Being is missing the point.  Having attended one of the elite colleges myself, I can attest from personal observation that what makes them different from other places isn’t so much academic rigor as a sort of unconscious affluence.  Students there don’t work thirty or forty hours a week for pay while they take classes.  And the assumption that “exclusive” equates to “high quality” is both antithetical to public higher education, by definition, and a reversion to the bad old habit of mistaking inputs for outputs.

Secondly, it neglects the very real academic excellence that can be found on many public campuses.    

Thirdly, it’s based on a really basic category error.  Let’s see if you’re smarter than a New York Times editor.  Find the flaw in the following:

Taylor attends Hypothetical Community College.
Hypothetical Community College has a 25% graduation rate.
Therefore, Taylor has a 25% chance of graduating.

If you think that’s an airtight syllogism, congratulations!  You have what it takes to edit the New York Times!

On the other hand, if you can spot the fallacy, then you might actually grasp the truth.  Not every student at a given college --any given college -- has the identical odds of graduation as every other student at that same college.  The overall graduation rate (leaving out for now that it only refers to first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students, which is a minority of community college students) reflects, among other things, the results from various subgroups of students, all added up.  If you disaggregate, you notice quickly that some subgroups do much better than the average, and some much worse.  

If Taylor is the kind of traditional-aged, high-achieving student that the Times has in mind, she’ll do just fine at a community college.  She’ll find her way to the honors program, join a learning community or two, run for student government, and quickly seek out the transfer counselor.  The fact that other students who come in with lower GPA’s, weaker academic preparation, less family support, and more need to work for pay graduate at lower rates really doesn’t affect her chances one way or the other.

But prophecies can self-fulfill.  If the parents of the Taylors of the world decide that community colleges and less selective four year colleges have “too many” students who, well, aren’t like Taylor, they’ll start to think of community colleges as Not For People Like Them.  And American political history is abundantly clear that once an institution is identified politically with the poor, that the institution will be impoverished.  

I’m not a fan of any strategy that involves writing off most students and most colleges.  Bright students choosing to attend college close to home, where they have support networks, is not a crisis.  Elite opinion suggesting that we simply write off open access public education for anyone with talent is a crisis.  

If public higher education isn’t “good enough” for Taylor, don’t pretend that giving Taylor a slightly better shot at Harvard solves the societal problem.  Make public higher education better, and let the Taylors of the world go where it makes sense for them to go.  Besides, sometimes talent comes in overlooked packages, the kinds that the Harvard admissions office might miss.  I’d rather offer opportunity -- real, high-quality opportunity -- to whomever wants it, and let the results tell us where the talent is.  You might be surprised.

 

 

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