Ethical College Admissions: Questioning Assumptions on Undermatching

New studies on low-income students raise important issues, but we should not assume that there is a single best approach to higher education for all students, writes Jim Jump.

June 17, 2019

Several weeks ago an Inside Higher Ed article reported on a recent Pew Research Center report showing that the percentage of college students from poor families has increased over the past 20 years from 12 percent to 20 percent.

That would seem to be encouraging news. We probably shouldn’t declare victory, but that’s a clear sign of progress.

Or is it? While the opening clause in the first sentence in the article about the Pew study stated, “A growing number of college students are from poor families,” the rest of the sentence contained an important “but.” The second half of that opening sentence concluded, “but they’re mostly attending less selective institutions, which may decrease their chances of earning a bachelor’s degree.”

That sentence peels the onion back to reveal more significant questions and assumptions. Should we be celebrating the fact that there has been progress in increasing the percentage of college students who are from poor families, or lamenting the fact that the gains are concentrated at the lower end of the selectivity food chain? What’s more important, going to college or going to an “elite” college? What are the factors that impact college choice for students from poor families, and is there anything that can be done to expand horizons?

All of those questions arise from the concept of “undermatching,” the idea that students from deprived socioeconomic backgrounds do not attend, or even apply to, colleges as selective as their credentials might warrant. A 2018 Atlantic Monthly article stated, “Few theories have garnered as much attention from the higher education crowd as quickly.”

Much of the attention given to undermatching is due to the work of Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby, especially research in conjunction with Richard Avery from Harvard University and Sarah Turner from the University of Virginia. In their 2012 paper, “The Missing One-Offs: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students,” Hoxby and Avery concluded that there are far more of those students than admissions officers know.

That is largely a recruitment issue. Hoxby and Avery argued that the majority of low-income students with grades and test scores that make them competitive for highly selective colleges and universities come from two sources -- magnet schools in a dozen large metropolitan areas or school districts located near a selective college. That conclusion would seem to be supported by recent studies that show that few selective colleges visit high schools in rural areas.

Students without access to good college counseling tend to be driven by concerns about distance and cost in applying to college, although Hoxby and Avery pointed out that many of them could attend a selective private college or flagship state university for less cost. That doesn’t mean that they are unaware of the broader world of higher education, just that they don’t realize how many options they might have. According to the research, nearly 40 percent of high-achieving, low-income students employ what Hoxby and Avery called “application strategies an expert would probably regard as odd,” applying only to the local nonselective public university and one place like Harvard.

Is there a way to change the playing field for those students? Back in 2013 New York Times columnist David Leonhardt trumpeted a plan developed by Hoxby and Turner as a simple solution to a complex problem. Their research study was designed to determine whether high-achieving, low-income students fail to consider selective college options due to lack of information or lack of desire. They designed packets full of information about applying for admission and college costs, including application fee waivers, and sent them to 40,000 students.

The early returns were encouraging, with 54 percent of the students receiving a packet earning admission to a college matching their credentials. That caught the attention of the College Board, which threw its support behind the idea with its Realizing Your College Potential (RYCP) initiative. Now a new report analyzing RYCP suggests that the early returns may have been too optimistic.

The report, released through the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, was conducted by six College Board employees and studied nearly 800,000 students who graduated in 2016 and 2017. The program, which included access to its Big Future website and fee waivers for both test scores and applications, did not show demonstrable changes in the list of colleges to which participants chose to apply, other than small positive changes for African American and Hispanic students. The students involved may have expanded their lists, but to institutions with both stronger and weaker profiles.

The research results don’t prove that there was anything wrong either with Hoxby and Turner’s study or with the College Board initiative, just that the issue is more complex than envisioned. They suggest that information alone is not enough to change student behavior.

The recent College Board report provides three interesting hypotheses why the follow-up study did not confirm Hoxby and Turner’s results. The College Board study targeted a group of students nearly 20 times that used in the original study, the College Board may have been too reliant on email to communicate with students, and there is a wonder about whether the College Board brand may have limited trust in the initiative.

That takes us back to the Pew Research Center study referenced at the very beginning of this column. Pew reports that the percentage of college students from poor households has improved over the past 20 years, but tempers that news by reporting that those gains are largely seen at less selective institutions.

Why is that a problem? The ostensible reason is that attending less selective colleges and universities decreases a student's chances of earning a bachelor’s degree. I applaud the emphasis on the importance of college completion, but the evidence cited by Pew does not prove the contention that low-income students’ chances of earning a degree are lessened by their choice of college.

The most compelling argument raised by Pew is that less selective public colleges receive less state funding, even though the students they serve have the greatest need. But the argument that students are less likely to graduate when attending a less selective college seems to be based not in evidence about that cohort’s experience at those colleges but rather the fact that the graduation rates at those colleges are lower. But is that an indictment of those colleges or an acknowledgment that they are more likely and more willing to admit students who are risks?

What needs more study and discussion is the assumptions underlying undermatching. Primary among them the idea that students should choose the “best” college they can get into, with “best” being a euphemism for most selective. That is a form of the myth of prestige, the view that the value of college lies in the brand name on the diploma. The assumption is that attending an elite college will transform a bright but poor student into an elite. That’s a noble aspiration, but what is the experience of those students in elite environments?

High-achieving, low-income students may choose less selective colleges for reasons of fit. If the value of college lies in the experience one has in college rather than the brand name, the undermatching argument becomes less compelling. There is nothing wrong with a student choosing to be a big fish in a small pond rather than going to a bigger, fancier pond that has just figured out that it lacks certain species of fish.

The debate about undermatching is important, but let’s not fall into the trap of believing that every high-achieving, low-income student will benefit from attending a more selective college.

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Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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