Undermatch, Overmatch, Mismatch

In a recent piece published by American Enterprise Institute, “Let’s Not Underestimate Undermatch,” author Awilda Rodriguez outlines what she views as a serious problem, undermatching. She describes it as “the phenomenon where students do not attend a college or university that they could have gained admission to, based on their academic abilities.”

She is not alone in making that argument. Concern over this alleged problem has gone as high as the White House.

Last October, a number of top university presidents met with key administration policymakers, including economics adviser Gene Sperling, to discuss ways of getting more students from lower socio-economic status to apply to prestigious colleges and universities. According to Inside Higher Ed, the meeting “consisted mostly of the university presidents telling White House officials of their efforts to recruit low-income students.”

Is undermatching much of a problem? And if we are going to think about that, shouldn’t we also think about other ways in which students make sub-optimal (if not disastrous) college decisions? Some students “overmatch,” which is to say, they are enticed into schools where they are not academically competitive. Others mismatch by enrolling in schools where they’ll make poor use of their time and money because the campus environment is wrong for them.

Let’s examine each of those mistakes in matching—with emphasis on the latest issue of concern, undermatching.

A student “undermatches” when he or she has the academic ability to attend (or at least has a fairly good chance at being accepted into) a college or university at one level of selectivity or prestige, but instead winds up at another school that is at a lower level.

To illustrate, let us say that a pretty good student who lives in the western tip of North Carolina has an academic profile that makes him a probable admit at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the state’s flagship. Perhaps he applies and is accepted at UNC. Or perhaps he decides against applying there in favor of the school where he eventually enrolls, Western Carolina University.

Because UNC-CH is regarded as a more selective and prestigious institution than Western, our student has undermatched. That sounds like a problem—but only if we assume that there is a tangible cost to having foregone the degree at Chapel Hill in favor of Western. Is there?

We can dispense with the idea that merely because one school is thought of as more prestigious than another, students at the former necessarily receive a better education than students at the latter. That is clearly not true.  Courses taught at a more prestigious college are not necessarily superior to those at a less prestigious school. In fact, enrolling in a school thought of as comparatively “prestigious” can be an educational catastrophe for some students.

An excellent illustration of that fact is found in the recent book Paying for the Party, which I reviewed here. The book is about the experiences of a large number of women students at Indiana University. Many of those students did poorly in their first year, owing to the sports and party dominated campus culture. But when they later transferred to less prestigious colleges, they learned far more.

Lots of students who chose the more prestigious flagship Indiana University would have been better off by “undermatching” themselves into a small, regional school in the first place. At those institutions, they would have had actual professors teaching their courses rather than TAs, and they’d have been more likely to get good academic counseling.

The more prestigious IU certainly has its advantages—more companies will interview there than at a regional university, for example. But there are trade-offs that might make the “lesser” school better for some students.

Another reason that is given for the supposed harm of undermatching is that students who go to “better” schools gain the advantage of the stronger networks available to graduates of more prestigious schools. UNC grads have a larger, more influential network that could prove valuable to their careers than do Western Carolina grads.

That is an advantage, but nobody these days needs to rely just on a single network. Networks abound, most of them more focused and beneficial than a sprawling alumni network. The Western Carolina grad is hardly at any disadvantage compared to a UNC grad when it comes to making his way in the world.

Ultimately, education is what you make of it. A student at a little-known college (for example, the University of Minnesota Rochester, which I recently discussed here) might benefit enormously from hard work with a deeply engaged faculty, while another student who chooses a famous, prestigious university might find it a big waste of time – as this UCLA graduate did.

One more concern that is raised about undermatching is that students who attend a more selective, prestigious school are more likely to graduate than those who enroll in “lesser” institutions. The graduation rate at Chapel Hill is 89 percent, but only 50 percent at Western Carolina. Doesn’t that indicate how much better off the student would be at Chapel Hill rather than “undermatching” at Western?

No, it doesn’t. Whether or not a student does the work necessary to graduate is not a matter of probabilities. It is within his or her control to do what it takes to fulfill the degree requirements. The overall statistics are irrelevant.

All in all, undermatching seems like a minimal problem—but not non-existent. Conceivably, a really good student with superb talents in, say, mathematics, might do himself some harm by enrolling in a lesser school where the rigor of the math is not much of a challenge. Time spent at that school would be put to relatively poor use.

But that need not be a permanent, irremediable mistake. That student can do much to make up for the comparative weakness of the math at his school, including taking more rigorous math courses online (such as those available from MIT), transferring to another school, and going on for a math Ph.D. where he will be challenged.

For those reasons, I don’t think that “undermatching” is much of a problem. Moreover, as Matthew Chingos observes in this Brookings piece, “reshuffling students across colleges means that some gain but others lose.” Correcting undermatching simply means that some other student will be undermatched because there are limited numbers of spaces for students in the supposedly superior colleges. It’s a zero sum game.

Now, what about overmatching? If we tell students that they really should go for the “best” college possible (and persuade the officials at those colleges to go to great lengths to lure them in, as the White House wants to do), we run the risk of putting students into schools where they are at a severe academic disadvantage compared with most of their classmates.

Consider, for instance, this story community college dean Matt Reed relates (drawn from Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath). Caroline loved science throughout high school and enrolled at Brown, the “best” school she could get into. Unfortunately, she soon found herself “outgunned intellectually by enough of her peers that she got discouraged.” Caroline would probably have done very well at some other school where she’d have been “the big fish in a smaller pond.” Sadly, following the advice not to “undermatch,” she found herself overmatched.

Reed writes, “It’s a welcome rebuttal to the annoying literature about ‘undermatching’ that presumes that less selective colleges are essentially traps.”

The more we try to prevent undermatching, the more we are apt to get the opposite, such as in the case of UC-Berkeley student Kashawn Campbell, who barely avoided flunking out of his first year. (I wrote about Mr. Campbell here.)

And, finally, there is mismatching that has nothing to do with perceptions about prestige. “Mismatching” is something students frequently do for other reasons. For example, it’s a mismatch for students who crave peer approval to enroll at a “party school,” because they probably won’t be able to resist the party scene. Similarly, students who badly need to improve their reading and writing abilities should not go to schools where those fundamentals are low priorities.

In short, there is no “silver bullet” that takes care of the several mismatching problems, but it seems to me that an obsession with the least of them, undermatching, may aggravate the other two.