Lively conversations over a virtual cuppa

What Is Undermatching, and What Do We Do About It?

Megan Holland and Chungseo Kang.

Megan Holland (left) and Chungseo Kang. Illustrations: Chris Lyons, BFA ’81


“Undermatching” describes the placement of high-performing students into colleges that don’t match their qualifications—a phenomenon especially common in economically disadvantaged schools and communities. Why does under-matching occur, what are the ramifications, and how do we fix it? To find out, we asked Megan Holland, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy, and Chungseo Kang, a postdoctoral associate and co-author of a recent study titled “College Undermatching, Degree Attainment, and Minority Students.” Both are in the Graduate School of Education.

Chungseo Kang: The empirical studies say that there are a few reasons for undermatching. The first one is a deficit of information in the college application process. For example, a student may have a high GPA and high SAT scores but may not have good information about where to go to college or how to apply for financial aid. Many of these students also don’t have the cultural capital it might take to get into more selective colleges and universities. But I think Megan has more knowledge in this area.

Megan Holland: Cultural knowledge is a form of cultural capital, and it’s really about understanding how institutions work. The college application process is almost an institution in and of itself. There are admissions consultants, and people spend thousands of dollars to help them navigate this process. And because the process has become increasingly competitive, particularly for these super-competitive colleges, you need a lot of information to be able to navigate it. We know that first-generation and low-income students do not necessarily have this kind of information. They don’t engage in what some researchers call “college enhancement strategies.” Things like knowing to take AP classes, knowing to tailor your essays to different types of colleges, even knowing that if you visit a college at a college fair, you should write your name down because colleges like to see that you’re interested. Little things like that can influence not only where students apply but whether or not they get in.

CK: There is a study showing that when the student’s parents have entered a four-year college, the student is less likely to be undermatched. Even if they just talk about the college admissions process in the house, that can be a very powerful factor. There is also an unequal geographic distribution of higher-education opportunities. If you live in Wyoming, there are only a few top-tier state universities and only a few private schools. It’s therefore much harder to find a college in that area that will match your qualifications. There’s a study showing that when a student attends a high school within 50 miles of a college that matches their qualifications, undermatching drops off dramatically. This is a very hard problem to solve, because the locations of the institutions are fixed.

MH: Beyond the obvious impacts of undermatching on the students themselves and their communities, there are ramifications at the societal level, which is addressed in the same article Chungseo is referencing, by Sarah Ovink and colleagues in Research in Higher Education. If we think about elite institutions as being the best training facilities for our future intellectuals, engineers, policymakers and politicians, and we’re not sending our best people to these institutions, what are the ramifications for society in the future? Are we wasting the potential of these students? There are some studies by economists that try to think of different ways to encourage low-income students to apply to more selective schools. A paper by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner presents evidence that in an intervention where they sent out free applications, students applied to more colleges; I think they had the most success when they sent out free applications plus good, quality college information, which led to more students enrolling in matched colleges. In other work, Hoxby argues that there needs to be more recruiting by more selective colleges of low-income students and of students from more rural areas.

CK: Lots of institutions are making interventions. Sometimes students don’t have the finances to apply to a lot of colleges, because the application fees are not cheap, and so colleges and high schools will provide financial support to apply. When institutions do this, undermatching is dramatically reduced. But to solve the undermatching problem is very hard because there’s a finite number of spots at competitive universities, meaning if we just reduce the undermatching rate among low-income students, it could go up elsewhere. It’s a redistribution process.

MH: The redistribution question is important. Undermatching is not an equal-opportunity phenomenon. It’s highly tied to race and class. We’ve found that when low-income and racial/ethnic minority students are correctly matched, they have better educational outcomes than if they attended a less selective school. Research suggests that college selectivity matters less for other students. I think an important question is, what is it about more selective institutions that benefits less advantaged students disproportionately? We need to delve deeper into that part of the issue.

How do you take your coffee?

Megan Holland and Chungseo Kang.

Megan: With cream.
Chungseo: I drink espresso over ice.