Why Are So Many High-Achieving Students Ending Up at Less-Selective Schools?

by Martin Sanchez

Picture a high-school graduate from a low-income family who has achieved something impressive. Despite facing considerable inequities—attending an underfunded school, being unable to afford private tutoring, and having to work outside of school to help support her family—she is graduating with a GPA and SAT score high enough to qualify her for several selective universities across the country.

But when autumn rolls around, this student stays at home and enrolls in a local community college instead.

Why would a student like this make such a decision?

It’s an important question, because this kind of story is more common than you might think. There’s even a term for it: ‘undermatching,’ or attending a less selective college than you could have based on your GPA and test scores.

A Georgetown University study found that in a given school year, over fifty percent of low-income, high-achieving students end up undermatching.

This trend cannot be blamed on tuition costs alone, and its impact can have serious consequences for students’ academic careers. The better we understand the trend, the better we can help low-income students take advantage of the college opportunities they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Reasons Low-Income Students Might Undermatch

High tuition might seem like the obvious reason why students from low-income backgrounds would not enroll in selective colleges. But while college is undeniably a significant investment, low-income students actually have many financial supports available to them. The College Board estimates that low-income students can pay less than half of the average public university sticker price if they know which scholarships and resources to access. Additionally, many selective private schools reduce or entirely eliminate tuition for low-income students.

Unfortunately, many low-income students are unaware of these options or are unsure if they qualify. One reason why is that these students are less likely to have access to information about college finances from college-educated people in their families and communities—and in school, since counselors at lower-resourced schools are often overworked and hard to reach. Additionally, the financial aid information colleges provide often does a poor job of describing how financial aid mechanisms actually work, creating uncertainty about what students can and cannot afford.

Most students face these challenges to some degree. But the more financial aid a student needs to cover tuition costs for a selective college, the more likely they are to encounter one of these obstacles, and to question whether that selective college is worth the apparently high sticker price.

There are other factors still that lead low-income students to undermatch. Students might feel uncomfortable leaving their families to attend college, or feel uncertain about how a certain college will support their career goals. They might even be dealing with internalized bias about their own academic aptitude. If a student is already uncertain about the cost of college, it’s not hard to imagine how one of these other factors could push that student towards what feels like an easier, safer option.

Why Undermatching is A Problem

It’s possible to get a great education at any well-meaning institution of higher learning. However, more-selective institutions do tend to provide better outcomes for students from low-income backgrounds. Nationwide, approximately 50 percent of low-income students at four-year colleges earn a degree within six years of enrolling, compared to just 26 percent of the same population at community colleges.

There is nothing inherently wrong with attending a less-selective college. But if a student has achieved strong grades and test scores, we shouldn’t be satisfied with her going somewhere ‘good enough’—while equally qualified, wealthier students go to a selective college just because they can access the right resources.

How to Help Students Reach Good-Match Colleges

Many preventable instances of undermatching stem from lack of accessible information about tuition and campus life. Colleges and high schools can help by getting more of the right information into students’ hands.

This means making financial aid information as simple and clear as possible. For colleges, the federal Financial Aid Shopping Sheet offers a model for distinguishing the apparent sticker price of college from what each family will actually pay. Meanwhile, high school educators can help by teaching students early on how college tuition and financial aid work, so they’re ready to tackle those subjects by the time they apply.

Low-income students also deserve the same opportunities as wealthier students to explore campus life and build the confidence to attend a selective college. One way colleges can help is providing free college visits to low-income applicants—only 44 percent of whom currently visit their top-choice school before applying.

Every student has unique interests and life circumstances, and some might really feel that a less-selective college is the right choice. But low-income students deserve the same opportunities as their peers to make a fully informed decision about their educational path. Strategies like these ones can help them be true co-authors of their college journey and demonstrate just how much they have to offer the world of higher education.

Martin Sanchez is CollegeSpring’s communications manager.


Image credit: COD Newsroom.