Matching Students to Opportunity: Expanding College Choice, Access, and Quality
reviewed by Chenoa S. Woods - December 15, 2016
Title: Matching Students to Opportunity: Expanding College Choice, Access, and Quality
Author(s): Andrew P. Kelly, Jessica S. Howell, & Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj (Eds.)
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612509479, Pages: 280, Year: 2016
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College access, choice, and success have long been an equity issue for low-income and underrepresented minority students, particularly when considering attendance at high-quality postsecondary institutions (Cahalan & Perna, 2015; Hurtado, Inkelas, Briggs, & Rhee, 1997). Much of the related research has centered on how to improve these students college match and facilitate application to, and enrollment in, colleges complementing their academic abilities to best support their success. Matching Students to Opportunity: Expanding College Choice, Access, and Quality, edited by Andrew P. Kelly, Jessica S. Howell, and Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, explores issues related to college match and expands upon existing literature in several ways. The editors begin by explaining that undermatching occurs when students fail to apply to, and enroll in, a college suited to their academic ability (e.g., the most selective institution where the student could have been enrolled). They position undermatch as negatively related to student success and acknowledge the process is complex and not without risk.
The chapters progress smoothly by introducing issues related to college match and fit (Chapters One and Two), understanding match within broader contexts (Chapters Three and Four), addressing what colleges can do to increase match (Chapters Five and Six), and exploring policies related to match (Chapters Seven, Eight, and Nine). As the editors note in their introduction, much of the previous research related to matching and undermatching has focused on high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds. The text complements this body of work by including research related to other types of students, expanding definitions of match to a more comprehensive fit, and addressing how institutional, state, and federal policies may play a role in the undermatching phenomenon.
Each chapter provides insights useful to understanding college access, match, success, and other interesting findings. The first several chapters discuss the importance of non-academic factors related to fit like location. They also demonstrate how in some cases students who choose a selective institution are forced to leave their home state. These issues, often related to the states higher education systems and not the students themselves, are non-trivial when considering out-of-state tuition, travel costs to return home for academic breaks, cultural or religious preferences, and family obligations. For example, the authors of Chapter Two found that Black and Latino students were more likely to prefer institutions closer to home. Further, Chapter Three states that national searches are more common for higher performing students and those from high-income backgrounds, but proximity is key in framing the college choice process for average-performing students, who may face additional constraints (p. 57). The chapter also effectively expands our current understanding of match with respect to average performers. This is important because the majority of college-goers are not high performers, nor are the majority of colleges highly selective. Similarly, the contribution of Chapter Four regarding match in relation to major course pathways further magnifies the importance of match.
One of the strengths of Matching Students to Opportunity is its attention to the supply side of issues related to undermatch. Evidence from Chapter Five indicates that more students attended higher performing institutions either because colleges have increased availability over time or improved their graduation rates. In either case, this points to potential improvements in rates of college match. The author argues that providing information about high-performing colleges to students is important if the number of available seats increases. However, if the increase is too gradual, policy incentives to expand enrollment at high-performing colleges are also crucial. Chapter Six focuses on holistic admissions but also addresses the issue of seat availability by discussing the replacement problem of low-income students being admitted to highly selective colleges with previous academic performance lower than that of students traditionally admitted to these institutions (p. 131). However, I question whether overmatch is truly possible particularly in the presence of holistic admissions considering student preferences, characteristics, and non-academic strengths. Further, given evidence of states that overmatch may benefit some students (see Chapter Eight in this volume; Dillon & Smith, 2015; Goodman, Hurwitz, & Smith, 2015), I wonder whether overmatch is an appropriate term. If students who overmatch are successful, perhaps another phrase for this pathway is more appropriate. Regardless of this critique, greater attention to the concept of overmatch may provide a picture of issues related to college match that becomes more complete.
An unanswered remaining question is whether undermatching operates in the context of bachelor degree-granting community colleges. With community colleges across the country offering multiple bachelor degree programs per institution, it is possible that students who were well positioned to transfer to a more competitive university will stay local to earn a bachelor degree where they already attend, a clear case of undermatching. Similar questions regarding undermatch with College Promise agreements and free community college remain somewhat unanswered. Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight address these issues, but future research should extend this work in additional contexts as these policies continue to be considered across the country. It is possible that incentives to attend less selective institutions result in students opting first to attend a community college and then their local less selective institution instead of transferring to a more competitive university. Although Chapter Sevens case study of the Pittsburgh Promise provides support for programs that broaden access to four-year institutions by decreasing financial barriers, readers are also cautioned to consider the evidence is particularly damning where state policies are shown to divert students into community colleges and broad-access four-year institutions (p. 206).
An overarching theme throughout many chapters is that students need more information about matching, particularly those who are low-income and perform at a high level. However, this information alone is not enough. Chapter Nine echoes many of the recommendations provided in the previous chapters by suggesting policy for the federal government to improve matching. However, the chapter author also states the main goal of the federal government should be to require colleges to disclose information on relevant outcomes for different subgroups of students (p. 196). Chapter Four develops a similar argument regarding information concerning the major selection process.
I applaud the editors acknowledgment that some questions related to college match versus college quality remain unanswered. Although this book provides a well-rounded view of college match, the future research agenda remains long. With the changing political climate of the country and the Department of Education, additional research regarding college access, choice, and success for students relying on admissions and financial aid policies benefiting low-income and underrepresented students is particularly important. Also, research supporting effective policies and practices can continue to inform local, state, and national leaders to improve education for every student. Matching Students to Opportunity provides such support and makes a call for additional research.
Cahalan, M., & Perna, L.W. (2015). Indicators of higher education equity in the United States: 45 year trend report. 2015 revised edition. Washington, DC: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and Penn AHEAD. Retrieved from http://www.pellinstitute.org/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_United_States_45_Year_Report.shtml
Dillon, E. W., & Smith, J. A. (2015, May). The consequences of academic match between students and colleges (IZA Discussion Paper No. 9080). Bonn, DE: Institute for the Study of Labor.
Goodman, J., Hurwitz, M., & Smith, J. (2015, February). Access to four-year public colleges and degree completion. (NBER working paper, No. 20996). Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/papers/w20996?%20utm_campaign=ntw&utm_medium=email&utm_source=ntw
Hurtado, S., Inkelas, K. K., Briggs, C., & Rhee, B. S. (1997). Differences in college access and choice among racial/ethnic groups: Identifying continuing barriers. Research in Higher Education, 38(1), 4375.