Student-to-College ‘Mismatch’ Seen as Graduation-Rate Issue

By Debra Viadero — September 21, 2009 7 min read

Includes updates and/or revisions.

An important new book on improving the stagnant graduation rates of the nation’s public colleges and universities suggests that one reason so many academically talented students leave college without a diploma may be that they enroll in schools for which they are overqualified.

Authors William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson propose that counterintuitive idea, which they call “undermatching,” in Crossing the Finish Line, published this month by Princeton University Press. The book’s findings are drawn from a new study of 68 public colleges and universities, including 21 flagship schools, in four states.

“The intuition is that if you want to be sure you’re going to graduate, you’re going to go someplace easy,” said Mr. McPherson, who is the president of the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation.

“That turns out to not be true.”

Coming as President Barack Obama and major philanthropies, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are setting their sights on reclaiming the lead the United States once enjoyed in college-graduation rates, the book’s publication is timely. Experts predict its findings will weigh heavily in education policy debates going on now at the national level.

“It’s the right book, by the right authors, at the right time,” said Kevin Carey, the policy director for Education Sector, a Washington think tank. “This points to the need to do a much better job providing guidance and counseling to high school students. Unfortunately, there’s a sense now that going anywhere in higher education is good.”

‘Leaving Early’

Some of the book’s expected influence stems from its authors’ backgrounds. Mr. Bowen and Mr. McPherson are both former college presidents. Mr. Bowen headed Princeton University from 1972 to 1988, and Mr. McPherson was president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., from 1996 to 2003. Mr. Chingos, their co-author, is a research fellow in Harvard University’s program on education policy and governance.

Graduation Rates and 'Undermatching'

Students who undermatched to a less-selective college graduated at lower rates than students who did match.


SOURCE: North Carolina High School Seniors Database

Mr. Bowen is also noted in the education policy world for co-writing The Shape of the River, a 1998 book that played a prominent role in national debates over college affirmative action policies.

Policymakers’ attention to colleges and universities has focused in recent decades on improving access for students, particularly those who are disadvantaged or members of a minority group. But until recently, little attention has been paid to what happens to students once they get to college. Nationwide, statistics show that only 56 percent of freshmen graduate within four years, and that the average time it takes to earn a degree is lengthening.

As one graduate student quoted in the book puts it, graduating in four years now “would be like leaving the party at 10:30.”

The authors of Crossing the Finish Line introduce some empirical evidence into the graduation question by gathering data on hundreds of thousands of students entering public colleges and universities in 1999 in Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. They focused on public institutions, according to the book, because those schools enroll 80 percent of all students seeking four-year degrees in the United States.

The findings on undermatching, though, come from data on North Carolina students. Among the students from that state who presumably would have qualified to enter more-selective schools because of their grades and college-entrance-exam scores, 40 percent chose not to attend the most prestigious schools. They chose the next most-competitive state school, a historically black college or university, a two-year college, or no college at all.

The study also found that undermatching was more common among students from families with low incomes and those whose parents did not attend college. The flagship schools in the study drew only 36 percent of the well-qualified students from families with no college-going experience, and 41 percent of those from families whose incomes put them in the bottom quartile of the income distribution.

The authors suggest that one barrier for lower-income families may have been the “sticker prices” for the elite schools—possibly because parents may not have had information about the financial-aid opportunities available.

“It matters,” Mr. Bowen said at a forum held last week at the Brookings Institution in Washington to discuss the book, “because contrary to what we might think intuitively, students who go to schools for which they are overqualified are much less likely to graduate in four years.”

Peer Pressure?

Among all North Carolina students who qualified on paper for a top-tier state school, the study found, those who chose the next-most-competitive level of school were 15 percentage points less likely to graduate within four years, and 22 percentage points less likely to graduate in six years. The gaps were even larger, the study shows, between students who started out in a two-year college with the intention of transferring later and those who began their college careers in four-year schools.

“We don’t have a decisive way with the quantitative data that we have to figure out what’s causing the results, but we do have some hunches,” Mr. McPherson said in an interview. “If you go to a place where most people graduate, your family will expect that you’re going to graduate. Where graduation is less of the norm, you’re just one of the crowd.”

The researchers speculated that the more-competitive schools may have better facilities, better teachers, more financial assistance, or more-extensive counseling.

Some other experts have pointed out, however, that the findings do not take into account other differences among students, such as variations in motivation or drive, that could also explain the better outcomes for high-achieving students at the elite schools.

“I’m an undermatcher myself. I went to a regional campus of the North Carolina state system when I could have gone to the flagship, for reasons that could not have been picked up in this type of study,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a senior fellow at Brookings and the director of its Brown Center on Education Policy. He is also a former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. Among Mr. Whitehurst’s reasons: having a girlfriend nearby and the opportunity to attend a superior music program at the lower-tier school.

Mismatching in Chicago

The study described in Crossing the Finish Line is not the first to flag student-to-school mismatches as a potential problem.

Researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, in a study published last year, found that while 90 percent of the Chicago school system’s most academically advanced students have the qualifications to attend colleges that are at least “somewhat selective,” only a fraction ever get there. Those researchers calculated that fewer than half the students in the city’s advanced academic programs enroll in postsecondary schools that match their qualifications.

“They really line up with what we found in our work,” Jenny Nagaoka, one of four primary authors of that study, said of the findings in the new book. “We really weren’t sure whether our findings could be generalized to other places.”

Both studies found, for instance, that the leak in the pipeline from high school to college occurs somewhere in the application process. The prestigious schools aren’t rejecting the students. They are either not applying to the elite schools or rejecting their admissions offers.

“A fair amount of the undermatch can be attributed to the fact that the most qualified kids tend to go to the same schools that their classmates are going to,” Ms. Nagaoka said. “That may be OK for their classmates, but not for them.”

The undermatching problem is just one potential cause for low completion rates, the authors of Crossing the Finish Line contend. Another may be that admissions officers are giving too much weight to the wrong indicators of students’ college potential.

The researchers found in their four-state data that students’ grades in high school were better at predicting whether they would graduate than admissions tests such as the SAT or the ACT. Advanced Placement subject-matter tests also did a better job than the more general entrance exams, according to that analysis.

The book contends that colleges might increase their completion rates—and enroll a more socioeconomically and racially diverse population of students—by relying more heavily on grades in their admissions decisions.

Cost and financial aid also play a role. In states where the “net price” for state flagship schools is higher, the study found, low- and moderate-income students are less likely to graduate in four or six years than they are in states with less-expensive schools.

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Student-to-College ‘Mismatch’ Seen as Graduation-Rate Issue


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