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'Undermatching' Pros and Cons

April 7, 2014

PHILADELPHIA -- The idea of "undermatching" -- the view of education researchers that many talented high school students never apply to competitive colleges that might well admit them -- has captured widespread attention among researchers and policy makers in the last two years. The Obama administration, many elite colleges and educational organizations have all announced initiatives to combat undermatching. And, as is the case with many hot scholarly ideas, other researchers have questioned some of the assumptions behind those who have promoted the undermatching idea.

A paper presented here Friday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association took a different approach. The paper acknowledged that undermatching is a real phenomenon, and that there are considerable numbers of students who are not enrolling in the most competitive colleges possible.

But the paper -- by Kevin Fosnacht of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University -- said that while there are disadvantages to being undermatched, there may also be advantages.

For his study, Fosnacht compared the experiences of those who were undermatched with those who were not on various measures of the National Survey of Student Engagement. He found, as might be expected, that those who were undermatched experienced a less challenging academic environment than those who attended more selective institutions. Over all, the undermatched thought less highly of their institutions than did those who were at more competitive institutions. These are significant findings, and could explain, the paper says, why undermatched students are less likely than others to complete their degrees.

But on other measures, the undermatched students may have been better off. They were more likely than better matched students to have engaged in "active and collaborative" learning activities. And they had more frequent interactions with faculty members. Those findings differ from the underlying assumption of many discussions of undermatching that it should be viewed as inherently a bad thing. Faculty collaboration and active learning activities are considered "high impact" practices that have an important impact on the quality of education.

During the question-and-answer period after the presentation, Fosnacht said that his results made him skeptical of the idea that everyone should go to the most competitive college that will admit them. "I think there are lots of personal situations" that could lead someone to go to a less competitive college, he said, with benefits in faculty interaction as a desirable outcome for the undermatched. "If you want to go to a less selective school, but there is a great music program or another program, that's a reasonable choice," he said.

Where Fosnacht praised undermatching researchers was in exposing the reality that many undermatched students don't know their options. It's one thing to make an informed decision to attend a less competitive institution for any number of reasons, he said. "But I get concerned with people who don't know the difference between institutions."

 

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