Students Are Getting Better At Applying to College

If there’s one lesson that can be gleaned from mid-90’s romantic comedies, it’s that there comes a point in every relationship when a person wonders “Could I have done better?” Many college seniors ask a similar question (albeit one that makes for less-fertile ground for an Adam Sandler film):”Given my academic credentials, could I have gone to a better college?”

According to a new paper on “academic undermatch,” the answer is frequently yes, although the good news is that in the last 20 years the answer has become more likely to be no.

This paper quantifies the extent of student-college “academic undermatch,” which occurs when a student’s academic credentials permit them access to a college or university that is more selective than the postsecondary alternative they actually choose. Using a nationally representative dataset, we find that 41 percent of students undermatch in their postsecondary choice. We also find that academic undermatch affects students with a range of academic credentials, but is more common among those students from low socioeconomic status families, who live in rural areas, and whose parents have no college degree. Finally, we show that between the 1992 and 2004 high school senior cohorts, academic undermatch has decreased by nearly 20 percent. The decrease is partially due to students being more likely to apply to a matched college.

The bad news is that poor kids tend to be the least successful at maximizing their college decisions, although that’s not surprising given that they tend to be deficient in resources like guidance counselors and parents and siblings who already went through the college admissions process. It’s easy to look at academic undermatch as a kind of  first-world problem relative to other damaging effects of poverty, but I do think there’s more to it than initially meets the eye. When it comes to changing the culture of failing schools and neighborhoods, it’s important for there to be people who came through those bleak environments and went on to achieve great things. Each success marginally raises expectations for future youth, and higher expectations can have a positive impact on a range of outcomes. So when a kid from the Bronx increases his/her chances of significant achievement by attending attend Harvard rather than NYU, there it the potential for it to have shallow but wide influence on driving social change.
Smith, J., Pender, M., & Howell, J. (2012). The Full Extent of Student-College Academic Undermatch Economics of Education Review DOI: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2012.11.001

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