The LEAP Challenge Blog

Think Bigger: Undermatching, Stratification, Opportunity, and Equity

During a recent webinar on changing student pathways in higher education, I observed participants reciting the now-familiar “laundry list” of characteristics that are not traditional about this generation’s students. The list included everything from age to race to whether and how much students commute, work, serve in the military, or care for a family. As the webinar advanced, some expected themes emerged: How can we combat the “undermatching” phenomenon? (Undermatching describes the idea that many underserved students who are qualified to attend selective institutions are not applying to or enrolling in them). How can we diversify elite institutions where students are more likely to graduate and reach influential social positions? How can we prevent students who do not have to from going to community colleges? These well-intentioned questions sit atop a set of assumptions that we would be wise to challenge more often and more openly.

The first assumption is that selective institutions offer something educationally superior to broad-access institutions. Yet as is often noted, because selective institutions and public-access institutions are subject to very different “inputs”—of public investment, of institutional wealth, or of student populations shaped by stratifying social and educational experiences—the comparison between these institutions’ “outputs” can be nearly meaningless. In most cases, students at elite institutions, due to privilege or extraordinary innate abilities, are prepared to succeed regardless of the quality of their institutions’ practices. Thus their institutions’ outcomes may not reflect educational quality, but rather perpetuated stratification. Nonetheless, selective institutions do offer legitimate advantages, such as résumé prestige, the “peer effect” of learning from other students with exceptional talents, and access to leading scholars and powerful professional networks. These opportunities affirm the importance of representative diversity at elite institutions—particularly when opportunities for enrollment in selective colleges have actually declined for underserved minority students, even as general college access has expanded for all ethnic groups (Posselt et al. 2012).

If we rephrase this first assumption—that community colleges or broad-access four-year institutions cannot offer the same opportunities as more selective institutions—we uncover a new cache of questions. In many cases, the raw data (e.g. graduation rates) seem to support this assumption. In fact, the term “undermatching” is emblematic of a distinct lack of faith in certain institutions. But do we lack faith for the right reasons? Do we measure the difference in learning outcomes or practices across institutions in a meaningful way, or do we look at the outputs and forget about the inputs—the differences in the lives of each institution’s students? Do we consider the “peer effect” of learning in the more diverse environment that can be found at many less selective institutions? In sum, are we looking at how an institution transforms the students it has and holding all institutions accountable by equitable standards? Because elite institutions only have the capacity to educate a tiny proportion of our nation’s students, narrow efforts to change individual students’ college selection behavior must not eclipse the larger issue of investment of resources and good practice in broad-access institutions.

Another assumption is that all students should choose to go to the most selective institution possible. This is a classed and privileged assumption that all students should make decisions based on a particular set of values, rather than making decisions based on their own values, culture, or family needs. Moreover, this perspective assumes that all students have the knowledge capital to decode whether or not a given institution will serve their particular learning needs, or whether a degree from a given school will provide access to the social and economic opportunities that they expect. And of course, if we accept this perspective, we also accept that some students deserve the opportunities provided at an elite institution, while others do not and are thus “stuck” at the less selective and less resourced colleges.

To pry at this assumption, I would pose this question: if both elite and broad-access institutions grant the same baccalaureate degrees, shouldn’t students be able to count on any of these accredited institutions of higher learning to deliver a transformational, democratically essential “product” of equal value? Why do we ask students to decode and delineate one institution from another, when all grant the same degrees? Even if it is only our ideal, couldn’t we aspire to a greater sort of equal opportunity than “equally slim chances to attend an elite institution based on achievements and privileges accumulated by the age of 17?” In fact, a recent study shows that while the impact of undermatching on student success has been overemphasized, there are some distinct disadvantages that may stem from a student’s choice to attend  a community college over a four-year institution (Bastedo and Flaster 2014). These data certainly obligate us to advise students realistically about their college choices; they do not, however, relieve our societal and institutional responsibility to ensure that the huge contingent of students attending our nation’s community colleges can expect an education of equal value and quality.

The messages that we, in higher education, deliver regularly emphasize the overwhelming benefits of attending selective institutions while downplaying the contributions of broad-access institutions. In turn, students often believe that an elite school will predetermine their fate. Buying into the idea that our future opportunities are determined by our success today encourages indifference rather than resilience or persistence. As Frank Bruni recently noted in a New York Times op ed, college is “about turning a page and becoming a new person, not letting the ink dry on who, at 17 or 18, you already are.” We, as educators, administrators, or policy makers, must do the same for both students and institutions. The ink is not dry for students who, for any reason, did not attend an elite institution; nor is it dry for our broad-access colleges and universities. If we believe in these institutions as mechanisms for social mobility, we owe it to them not to bemoan students’ choices to attend them, but to think bigger about investment in institutional changes that make excellence inclusive by putting the majority of students at the center rather than on the margins of the quality conversation.

Bastedo, M. N., and A. Flaster. 2014. “Conceptual and Methodological Problems in Research on College Undermatch.” Educational Researcher 43 (2): 93–99.

Posselt, J. R., O. Jaquette, R. Bielby, and M. Bastedo. 2012. “Access without Equity: Longitudinal Analyses of Institutional Stratification by Race and Ethnicity, 1972–2004.”American Educational Research Journal 49 (6): 1074–111.