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Low-income students are one of the most underrepresented demographics at elite colleges in the United States, and a recent educational theory has suggested that misinformation is what’s been keeping qualified low-income students from attending the institutions that would fit their academic skill.

“Undermatching” is a term coined by higher education experts to describe how high-achieving low-income students often don’t apply to the institutions that would be good matches for their qualifications. Instead, many of these undermatched applicants end up going to colleges far below their academic ability.

The theory of undermatching was first popularized by Caroline Hoxby and Chris Avery in their 2012 study, which examined the behaviors of students from low-income backgrounds in regards to college. They discovered that while a majority of high-income and middle-income high-achievers apply to colleges that match their academic profiles, only 8% of low-income high-achievers do the same.

In fact, across their samples, 53% of low-income high-achieving students only applied to one college — and an unselective one, at that.

This happens even though selective schools “are cheaper for low-income high achievers than colleges that have fewer resources,” said Hoxby in an NPR interview. Diversity initiatives at many top universities can waive almost all of an applicant’s tuition based on demonstrated need, and many of these colleges are actively trying to recruit low-income students.

But Hoxby and Avery believe that these colleges’ recruiting methods are part of the problem. By only focusing their efforts in well-known inner city high schools, they neglect many low-income students who live in rural areas and contribute to the overall issue of college misinformation that affects many low-income students.

These regional biases are just one of the major pain points outlined in the study. The second point attributes misinformation to the staff members that low-income students interact with in their high schools, who may not have the necessary knowledge or resources to coach students to a selective college.

These two problems, combined with the prevailing notion among low-income students and their families that elite schools are “out of their league,” frequently cause high-achieving low-income students to undermatch.

Hoxby says that undermatching can decrease a student’s lifetime earnings significantly.

“You want to think on the order of at least half a million dollars over their lifetime, and that’s a very conservative estimate,” she told NPR.

Undermatching has caught the attention of educational researchers and policymakers alike, and has been a target of the Obama administration. In January of 2014, President Obama and First Lady Michelle led a summit on expanding higher education opportunities for low-income students. One of the key issues they addressed was undermatching.

At the summit, over 80 colleges and 15 non-profit organizations pledged to help in “connecting more low-income students to the school that is right for them and ensuring more students graduate,” according to a White House press release. These organizations made commitments to increase outreach and mentorship towards low-income students, and provide funding so that more low-income students can afford to apply to competitive schools.

But undermatching is not without its critics. Nicole Farmer Hurst, founder and CEO of College Advising Corps, believes that the focus on undermatching has narrowed the issue of college accessibility to only high-achieving low-income students.

“Every student deserves a postsecondary education,” Hurd said, in an Inside Higher Ed article. “Let’s remove the judgment.”

High-achieving low-income students comprise only a small fraction of the population of low-income students — a 2015 study puts the number at only 4%. Awilda Rodriguez, who authored this study, believes that limiting research to only high-achieving low-income students may only offer incomplete solutions to the more general problem of college accessibility.

“By focusing the conversation on a small percentage of students gaining access to an even smaller percentage of highly selective institutions,” Rodriguez wrote in her study, “we limit our understanding of the college match phenomenon — and our understanding of other forms of stratification across the higher education system.”

A 2014 research study by Kevin Fosnacht from the University of Indiana also found that undermatched students tended to fare better in certain areas of college life than their better-matched counterparts.

The study found that undermatched subjects found their school less academically challenging and generally had a lower opinion of their school. But they had more “active and collaborative” learning experiences and more interactions with faculty, which are “considered ‘high impact’ practices that have an important impact on the quality of education,” according to Inside Higher Ed.

Fosnacht concluded that undermatching should not be regarded as something completely negative, and that many students may choose to undermatch for their personal reasons after thoroughly evaluating their options.

He differentiates between an informed and uninformed decision about college, however, saying that Hoxby and Avery are right to highlight the lack of reliable college information that gets relayed to low-income students.

“I get concerned with people who don’t know the difference between institutions,” he said.


Jeanette Si

Jeanette is part of the class of 2018 at Cornell University, double majoring in Information Science and China Studies. She hails from a public high school in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and enjoys geocaching, skiing, and gaming in her spare time. Admissions season has given her humility, resilience, and the ability to answer ten different prompts with one personal statement.