Research on "Undermatching"

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For the past several years, a new term has found its way into the lexicon of higher education. “Undermatching” describes the situation where students enroll in colleges that are less selective than those they might aspire to based on their academic qualifications.

Some analyses indicate that this phenomenon is more prevalent with lower income students. Statistics seem to show that these highly talented students are enrolling in less selective institutions even though they could succeed at the best colleges in the country. More recently, there is research that these students also have lower graduation rates and decreased satisfaction in their educational experience.

Needless to say, most of the literature concludes that “undermatching” is a bad thing. For these students, they may miss the opportunity to be fully challenged academically and to have access to a wide and deep range of resources, programs and services typically available at highly selective institutions.

But a recent study provides a more complete analysis and a balanced interpretation of this phenomenon. “Selectivity and the College Experience: How Undermatching Shapes the College Experience Among High-Achieving Students” was authored by Kevin J. Fosnacht, a research analyst at the National Survey for Student Engagement. His findings were presented recent Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association in early April.

Fosnacht study confirmed that “undermatched” students experienced a less challenging academic environment. They also had a lower opinion of their college. According to Fosnacht, these findings could explain why these students also have lower graduation rates.

But Fosnacht also discovered that there are a number of positive factors related to “undermatching.” He found that these students are more likely to engage in “active and collaborative learning activities.” He also concluded that these students have more frequent interactions with faculty members.

These findings are important because of the plethora of research supporting the correlation between high quality education and both active/collaborative learning and faculty interactions. Students can have a great educational experience at any institution, regardless of selectivity.

The issue of “undermatching” has become political with calls from the President and the Department of Education for selective institutions to work to eliminate “undermatching”. The primary solution suggested is to make highly selective institutions more affordable for lower income/high ability students.

But the term reveals the most important factor … the match. Students do best when they attend the college that is the best fit … academically, socially, culturally, financially, spiritually, etc. “Undermatching” suggests that students are being underserved if they enroll in a college that may be less selective than their academic record suggests.

However, it seems to me that the most important statistic is student success academically. Every college has the responsibility to challenge each and every student to reach her or his academic potential. A quality educational experience is the match that counts.


NOTE: This blog will not appear for the next two weeks because of the Easter break. It will return on Monday, April 28, 2014.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)


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