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Participants at AEI conference on college match

American Enterprise Institute

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

A research conference the American Enterprise Institute hosted 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 Tuesday 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 enroll 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 coauthors. 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 enrollment 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.”

Typical Students and Academic Quality

Undermatching and elite colleges became a hot issue in part because of a 2012 study by Caroline Hoxby, a professor of economics at Stanford University, and Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy at Harvard University.

That paper, which the National Bureau of Economic Research published, found that more than half of low-income, highly talented students do not apply to a single selective college. And those that do tend to be clustered at a tiny number of high schools that require minimum test scores for admission.

Hurd said the problems uncovered in Hoxby and Avery’s paper are indeed worrisome.

“I don’t want to take all the oxygen out of that space,” said Hurd, pointing to the relatively small number of needy students that elite colleges enroll. (One of the research papers said low-income students comprise less than 5 percent of the enrollment at the nation's most selective institutions, a percentage that has remained largely unchanged for decades.)

Yet Hurd called for more of a focus on low-income students like the ones her group has helped gained admission to the City University of New York (CUNY), often with full scholarships. And, as several experts said at the conference, that approach means looking at the academic quality of public institutions.

One of the new working papers that took a broader view of college matching was authored by Awilda Rodriguez, an assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan. Christian Martell, a graduate research assistant at Michigan, coauthored the paper. It cited a recent study which said the national population of high-achieving, low-income students is small -- between 25,000 to 35,000 students, or about 4 percent of high school seniors (high-achieving was defined as having at least an A- GPA and scoring in the 90th percentile on the ACT or SAT).

“By focusing the conversation on a small percentage of students gaining access to an even smaller percentage of highly selective institutions,” Rodriguez wrote,” we limit our understanding of the college match phenomenon -- and our understanding of other forms of stratification across the higher education system.”

In contrast, her paper said the “average-performing” student is both “ubiquitous and obscure.” These students, defined as those with high school grade-point averages between 2.0 and 3.5, account for up to two-thirds of college students. Yet this group’s college aspirations and outcomes remain largely unstudied.

Average students in the study by Rodriguez are more likely to be low-income than are high-performing ones -- 45 percent come from families earning less than $50,000, compared to 27 percent of high-performing students. And they are less likely to have parents who hold college degrees.

Most students in the typical, or average, category do attend college -- only 8 percent were not enrolled in college or in the military two years after high school, according to the study. About 60 percent enrolled at four-year colleges, with 30 percent enrolling at community colleges.

When applying to college, average-performing students were slightly more concerned about price than high-performing students, the study found, and were more interested in staying close to home. Rodriguez wrote that 57 percent of this group enrolled in colleges that were located within 50 miles of their home.

Determining what constitutes a “good” match for average-performing students is more complicated than it is for high-performing ones, the paper said, because a good match for high-performing students tends to be enrolling at one of the nation’s top colleges. So Rodriguez proposed alternative ways to consider the match for typical students: 1) their career aspirations and academic interests; 2) their nearby college options; 3) the affordability of the institution; and 4) the likelihood of completion.

“Improving match can only be achieved if colleges that serve large shares of average-ability students well are encouraged to increase capacity,” the paper concludes, while “at the same time improving the colleges that have low or middling completion rates.”

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