When Disadvantaged Students Overlook Elite Colleges

Many poor, minority high-schoolers don’t apply to top institutions even though they could get in—a decision that can have lasting consequences.

A photo of people walking by a Bowdoin, College campus building.
Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Every year, scores of gifted students have their college prospects hampered by life circumstances. Imagine a teenager attending a high school where few of his peers make it to graduation, much less college. This student, however, is a high achiever. His grade-point average and test scores show it. In fact, they’re good enough to get into some of the best institutions in the country. But he doesn’t go to any of those institutions—let alone apply for them. Actual high-schoolers like this hypothetical student and the issues they face are very real.

The phenomenon—in which students do not attend the most selective colleges their qualifications suggest they could—is called “undermatching.” Few theories have garnered as much attention from the higher-education crowd as quickly as undermatching has. As Matthew Chingos, a policy expert at the Urban Institute, puts it, perhaps the chief problem with undermatching is that it disproportionately happens to low-income and minority students. A range of benefits comes with attending an elite institution: name recognition, more financial resources, and oftentimes an alumni network connected to powerful places. And by undermatching, capable students with unique perspectives on the world might miss out on those advantages—exacerbating a trend in which affluent students dominate the pipeline of those positioned for leadership roles.

A recent paper illustrates the extent to which undermatching dims the prospects of already-disadvantaged students: Those who undermatch—who are predominantly low-income and students of color—are less likely to graduate within four years, as well as within six years, than their peers who did not. Chungseo Kang and Darlene Garcia Torres, both education-policy scholars at State University of New York at Buffalo, used longitudinal U.S. Education Department data to create a national sample of nearly 5,000 students who enrolled in four-year institutions within a year of high-school graduation.

The researchers found that undermatching was highest among black students, at 49 percent. And the phenomenon seemed to have the most acute effect on Hispanic students: After controlling for various characteristics, the six-year graduation rate for those who undermatched was 28 percentage points lower than it was for those who didn’t.

Minority and low-income students undermatch for countless reasons. They may not have been made aware of their college options, some because they didn’t have a guidance counselor to do so. Those who did learn about their options may have received the information after the application deadline. Then there’s the fact that college recruiters tend to look for students at high-achieving high schools. And sometimes students may feel—or have been told—that selective colleges, or college more generally, is simply out of their league. Or that those selective schools are cost-prohibitive—even though such institutions tend to be more generous with financial aid than less-selective ones.

Chingos admits that highly selective colleges enroll a miniscule portion of the higher-education population, and that policymakers and the media may give these institutions outsized attention. A study published in the Journal of Labor Economics last year highlighted the importance of increasing access to public, 4-year colleges, a practice that substantially increases degree-completion rates. However, it is clear that many highly selective institutions could be doing more to socioeconomically diversify their student bodies, and that the benefits of attending them could have a profound impact on the leadership pipeline. Still, a 2016 Jack Kent Cooke Foundation report found that selective colleges had since 2000 hardly increased the number of students who receive Pell grants, which are reserved for low-income students.

There’s no doubt that undermatching occurs—but solutions to the problem are far less clear. One idea that has bounced around, including in the Cooke Foundation report, is for college-admissions offices to give extra weight to the applications of low-income students—a “poverty preference,” as the foundation called it. Colleges already give preference to other hopefuls, including recruited athletes and, perhaps most infamously, students whose relatives are alumni. So, the logic goes, why not do the same for low-income applicants?

In 2016, two senators proposed a bipartisan bill that would hold highly selective institutions accountable for enrolling and graduating more low-income students, penalizing those that repeatedly fail to boost their numbers with a fee. Experts such as Wil Del Pilar, of the advocacy group Education Trust, say this idea—the creation of an accountability system that requires institutions receiving federal dollars to have some minimum caps for low-income students—could increase diversity on these campuses. And in 2014, the Obama administration pinpointed undermatching as a national concern.

It’s worth noting that the need for extra support at the higher-education level for disadvantaged students tends to extend beyond the admissions process, particularly at elite colleges which tend to be less socioeconomically—and oftentimes racially—diverse. There are myriad stories of students who have found on elite campuses an environment where they feel isolated. Sometimes that frustration boils over into protest, but other times it could lead to a student falling behind. In fact, the focus on undermatching has drawn some ire from those who argue that attention should shift toward devoting more resources to improving graduation rates at less-selective institutions like community colleges and public, regional four-year institutions, which enroll the majority of low-income or minority students, rather than elite colleges.

But as long as attending an elite college continues to yield benefits, reducing the prevalence of undermatching will remain imperative. After all, it’s hard to ignore the fact that, as of 2016, more than 40 U.S. Senators and Representatives were Harvard alumni, making the Ivy League institution the most common alma mater in Congress. The No. 2 spot, meanwhile, went to Georgetown, while Yale was No. 3.