Undermatching may not always be an issue

Some argue public schools provide 'great education,' proximity to family, similar peers

Some public, access-focused colleges and universities are frustrated by the emphasis on undermatching in recent years and argue that not all cases end poorly, Tara García Mathewson reports for Education Dive.

Building Pathways for New Student Segments
Low-income/high-ability students

"I work with a lot of institutions that are access-focused," says Davis Attis, EAB's senior director of academic research. "They feel they can offer a great education," he says.

Studies show that low-income, high-ability students often do not apply to or enroll at elite schools, where retention and completion rates are generally higher. As such research was published, educational organizations began focusing on supporting low-income high school students and encourage them to attend more highly selective institutions.

A significant cause of undermatching is the lack of awareness many low-income students have regarding college choices. List prices at a public institution may be lower than at a private one, but frequently low-income students end up paying less at the latter. In response to such findings, elite colleges and universities launched extensive recruitment campaigns—a move the White House supported.

But that may mean less academic diversity at access-focused schools.

For example, some historically black colleges and universities have seen their average test scores decline in recent years. Attis says this can, in turn, make it harder for them to keep graduation rates high. 

"The question is, then, if I am an institution that is really good at serving low-income students, should I give up recruiting these students… or make the case that I'm one of the options they should consider?" Attis says.

Does school choice affect students' future success?

Undermatching does not necessarily result in worse outcomes, Attis says. It may provide students with the opportunity to attend school near their families or alongside peers come from similar backgrounds.

Many high-ability, low-income students decide not to return to the selective institution they attend their first semester due to culture shock or a sense of family duty. While these colleges and universities may ease the transition by implementing programs to help this cohort adjust, access-focused schools can also compete for these students by investing in programs they leave for.

However, that would require substantial funding during a period of falling revenue and state support (García Mathewson, Education Dive, 5/14).

The takeaway: 'Undermatching" does not always result in a poor outcome for high-ability, low-income students, but access-focused institutions are losing this cohort to elite institutions, reports Education Dive.

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