Application Season is Here & “Undermatching” is Still a Problem

I teach at a rural secondary school where more than half of the students qualify for a free or reduced lunch. My students are like those at every other school: They’re caring, hard-working, and want bright futures for themselves.  Many of them excel in sports, lead community efforts, earn high scores on the SAT. Like thousands of other students from low-income districts around the U.S., however, the majority will be submitting applications to attend community colleges and state schools that are close to home — if they choose to further their education at all.

This problem is called undermatching, a phenomenon in which high-achieving, but low-income students like mine decline to apply to competitive and “elite” colleges. The social implications of undermatching are potentially dire. Students who opt to enroll in two-year colleges tend to be less likely to graduate than their four-year college going peers; those who enroll in community colleges part-time fare even worse. Furthermore, if students living in underserved communities aren’t able to get their foot in the ivy door, they will be missing out on access to important connections and opportunities that may be their best tickets to upward social mobility. Prestigious universities will continue to function as sites where class privilege is reproduced because they will primarily serve those who already have advantageous backgrounds.

What’s the Cause?

Part of this problem could rest with educators like me who haven’t done enough to connect the dots for students, and convince them of the possibilities that are open. I encouraged a few promising students  to look beyond the nearest state school with little luck this year. I shared links to newspaper articles, and college websites. I talked about application fee waivers, and showed them how they might actually save money if they got into an elite college. Amherst College, for example, boasts that all students will graduate debt-free. What kept them from applying? One very understandable explanation is that they wanted to be closer to loved ones. I also suspect that these students weren’t convinced that I was correct about their potential as applicants, or entirely convinced that attendance at an elite institution would be worth the cost of moving far away, or surrounding themselves with students whose families can afford to fork out $50k annually for tuition, room, and board.

I can’t say that I entirely blame them for their skepticism. While I’m interested in ensuring that my students look to attend colleges that truly excite them, I worry that if educators focus exclusively on funneling more low-income students into elite colleges, they will ultimately do a disservice to the students and communities that they serve by perpetuating the classist notion that “elite” colleges are truly where the “smart” people do, and should, go.

Before we address disparities in enrollment at elite colleges then, we need to re-examine our own beliefs about  “mediocre” versus “elite” colleges. If students like mine are attending less-than-prestigious universities in droves and graduating with as much ambition as any other student — then why would anyone view their degrees as average, or the colleges that they attend as mediocre? Likewise, if we know that SAT scores are more of an accurate measure of family income than of academic aptitude, and if we know that admission to an ivy league may be less the result of individual uniqueness than of carefully manufactured resumes, then why do we still look at those enrolled in ivies with awe?

As Columbia University Sociologist Shamus Khan correctly notes, “talents are costly to develop.” That is, the achievements that impress university recruiters like starting a business, producing a documentary, or perfecting an instrument through years of lessons, are out of reach for many students who may lack the time, resources, or connections to pull off before their senior year. Some students simply need opportunities for do-overs and more time for personal growth. Unfortunately, our current education system is rather unforgiving to those who deviate from linear growth trajectories. Students are expected to understand the value of school, earn good grades, not get in trouble, network with teachers (and not annoy teachers), participate in extracurriculars, and develop unique interests — all before the age of 17, regardless of their personal circumstances.

Where do we go from here?

One solution is to do nothing at all. There are those who question the merits of an ivy league education, and argue that it’s entirely possible to access various privileges associated with attendance at an ivy league without being enrolled in such an “elite” institution. Guillaume Dumas, for example, gained access to lecture halls, parties, and conferences hosted by elite schools by masquerading as an enrolled student and working part-time. Dumas is now a successful entrepreneur and questions the value of a degree.

The problem is that the odds of replicating Dumas’ impressive antics are quite slim; Dumas relied on deceptive practices that would make many of my students squirm, and he exhibited a kind of social ease that usually comes from those who are already enjoy a certain amount of privilege — ease that many of my students would need to learn through a greater diversity of social and cultural experiences. Dumas felt comfortable conversing with well-known professors, networking on campuses, and working low-end jobs. He had enough money to commute around the country, and it seems clear that he didn’t have dependents to support. What Dumas ultimately proves is that a degree may not be necessary for those who are already able to move fluidly through privileged spaces.

What should teachers do if they have students could benefit from legitimate access to professors (and writing centers and career counselors) at an elite institution? A starting point is to communicate the specific intellectual, cultural, and social value of elite universities while also acknowledging the class biases that are built into the structure of the university and its admissions processes. Teachers can also take responsibility for creating opportunities for students to showcase their leadership and research skills that will pique the interest of college admissions officers. For example, my English department created short-term, peer-tutoring positions last year when we realized that some of our middle school students needed help with discussion skills; we’re also hoping to put students in charge of our literacy initiative efforts so that students have the chance to collaborate with librarians and community members.

Teachers can also share responsibility with guidance counselors for inspiring students to apply to elite colleges. Perhaps teachers should consider inviting college representatives and alums into their classrooms if they want to change college admission patterns. After all students need to hear about possibilities from multiple voices; they need teachers who can recognize their potential and steer them towards befitting opportunities. Students can then choose a path that’s most in-line with their needs and values.

For my students not attending elite universities this year, I’m not too anxious. Some of my students attending two-year colleges will transfer successfully to four-year universities. I know that they’ll be fine — particularly those who are adept at networking, and who have already demonstrated the ability generate tremendous strength in the face of obstacles. Still, I suspect that some of their lives may be more difficult because of the choices that they’ve made. A diploma from an elite college could make it easier for them to be groomed as leaders, not just employees, in their chosen fields. A diploma from a highly-selective college could make their lives easier, because others would look at their degrees and immediately recognize the outstanding potential that they possess.

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