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Mismatched or Undermatched?

A few years ago, opponents of affirmative action claimed admitting students of color into institutions that were too challenging for them was setting these students up for failure. This “mismatch” theory explained why students of color were more likely to drop out without completing a degree. However, a new study has raised a more intriguing theory. In Crossing the Finish Line, researchers found no evidence of any “mismatch” problem for Hispanics; what they found was a large “undermatch” problem.


According to this “undermatch” theory, students whose pre-collegiate preparation seems to qualify them to attend more selective four-year institutions do not enroll in these institutions. Some of the reasons provided for this undermatch included Latino students’ financial concerns, difficulty in completing the federal financial aid application form (FAFSA), lack of information and proper guidance, failure to apply to more than one “match” institution and a lack of a college-going culture at students’ high schools.


In fact, research in Crossing the Finish Line found the more selective the institution Hispanic students attended, the higher their rates of graduation. From a policy perspective, this finding would imply the educational attainment of Latino students can be improved by reducing the number of undermatched students. This sounds like a simple solution. But what would the public policy to improve student matching look like? Fundamentally, this would require public policy addressing the factors that influence Latino students’ college choices in more effective ways than have been accomplished heretofore.


Conventional wisdom on college choice is that students will enroll in the “best” institution they can get accepted to. And, for many students, the definition of “best” fit is based on financial aid offered, institutional prestige and academic programs offered. However, in contrast to this conventional wisdom, many Latino students we spoke with made their college choices based on other issues. They looked at college costs, location, and accessibility.


Further, the factors creating undermatched students in Crossing the Finish Line were consistent with findings from focus groups we conducted with high-achieving Latino students who enrolled in colleges less selective than they might be qualified to attend. Latino students shared with us their belief they could get a quality education if they were motivated, so why would they want to pay more or go elsewhere for their college education? This focus on self-motivation and lack of distinction between colleges should inform public policy to increase educational attainment.


Researchers and policymakers should also temper the inclination to generalize that Latino students make poor college choices because they do not always attend the most selective institutions they might be qualified to enter. Instead of “blaming students,” the authors in Crossing the Finish Line suggest increasing the capacity to facilitate the matching process at high schools and helping students understand the distinction between institutions when making college choices.


Until the capacity to facilitate the matching process improves, public policy should also invest in efforts to improve the quality of the institutions Latino students choose to attend. Data show that Latino students are more likely to attend community colleges or other open admission institutions. While not considered “selective” institutions by conventional measures, these institutions provide the most opportunity for a college education at an affordable price for many students of varying academic preparation levels.


Reference: Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, by W.G. Bowen, M.M. Chingos, & M.S. McPherson. 2009. Princeton University Press.


Deborah A. Santiago is vice president for policy and research for Excelencia in Education



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