Answering the Complex Question of College Matching and Low-Income Students

By Allie Arcese, Director of Communications

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

The “undermatching” phenomenon in higher education on the surface appears to have a fairly straightforward solution: High-achieving, low-income students need more information about their options, and more selective colleges and universities should do a better job of reaching out to those students and making room for them on campus.

But in reality, the answer is much more complex, according to a working paper by Michael Bastedo, an associate professor and director of the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education. Bastedo’s paper was presented at a research conference hosted by the American Enterprise Institute this week.

It’s well known that low-income students make up a noticeably smaller proportion of the population at selective colleges, but as Bastedo writes, it is “not due to a lack of qualified candidates.”

Still, increasing the number of low-income applicants to more selective institutions will not solve the undermatching problem, Bastedo writes, because enrollment management and admissions processes have many other factors influencing outcomes beyond standardized test scores and grade point averages. From the institutional side, for example, college and university officials have to keep in mind budgets and revenue goals, and how admitting more low-income students would affect their operations. Additionally, enrollment managers have pressure to maintain the institution’s “continued prestige and reputation,” Bastedo writes, such as those published in college rankings.

But the admissions process itself is a more complicated numbers game that also takes into account factors such as advanced courses, extracurricular activities, and demonstrated interest in a particular institution. Yet the majority of research on undermatching relies on standardized test scores – which are a significant driver – and grade point averages. On all three of these factors, Bastedo writes, low-income students are at a disadvantage. They’re significantly less likely to “max out” on advanced courses – often because they lack access to the courses – less likely to have extracurricular opportunities available, and less likely to show a demonstrated interest – either through legacy status or applying for early admission.

“When it comes to holistic review, low-income students are at a disadvantage in nearly every element of the process,” Bastedo writes. “Even elements designed to improve the odds for low-income applicants – contextualizing the student’s course-taking in light of the opportunities available in their high school, for example – in the long run simply do not produce greater socioeconomic diversity.”

Overall, institutions and policymakers need to go further than simply increasing the number of applications from low-income students, Bastedo writes. Federal and state policy, for example, could give colleges and universities more of an incentive to enroll low-income students by giving financial bonuses and including low-income student enrollment and graduation in funding formulas, respectively.

“Unfortunately, the existing financial incentives often exacerbate undermatching behavior,” Bastedo writes. “Lower-status institutions often provide merit scholarships to higher-performing students, and low-income students are the most likely to respond to these incentives.”

Bastedo also points out that if selective institutions, rather than setting a fixed enrollment each year, increased the number of places available to low-income students, it could increase low-income bachelor’s degree attainment by roughly 3,500 each year, “without declines in prestige or average academic achievement.”

“Undermatching is an important issue, not only for the students affected, but also for American public policy,” Bastedo writes. “We are closer now than ever to having significant answers to these challenges, but they will require thoughtful reflection, sustained efforts, and significant financial investments.”


Publication Date: 8/7/2015

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