Undermatch is Underthought

For the higher education community, the hottest ticket in town was President Obama’s invitation to the December 11 meeting aimed at helping lower-income students succeed in college. The event was postponed so Mr. Obama could attend Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa and has since been rescheduled for January 16. Next week’s meeting is a key ingredient in what the President has called an evolving “campaign to help more low-income students attend and succeed in college."

According to news reports, a major theme of the meeting will be improving low-income students’ access to the nation’s most prestigious campuses. This goal is wrapped in “undermatching”— the idea that low-income students are not applying to the more selective colleges they could attend. The Obamas flagged this issue November 12 in a well-received speech by Michelle Obama that emphasized the importance of increasing opportunities for first-generation low-income students.

Driven by their own Ivy League experiences and fixated on the growing power of the undermatch concept, the Obamas are zeroing in on only a small part of the problem.

Certainly, moving a handful of highly prepared and talented low-income students to Ivy League schools is good. They will likely graduate at high rates and get good jobs after graduation. But the number of students in elite colleges is so small that fixing undermatch there simply won’t appreciably increase the percentage of college-educated adults in the US.

Far more important than fixing the elite undermatch “problem” is attending to the performance of community colleges, regional public “comprehensive” campuses, and, yes, the for-profit institutions that together educate most low-income students. Concentrating on the undermatch at Harvard or Princeton or even Stony Brook or Madison is a distraction from the real work ahead—accurately measuring and then improving the success of graduates from broad-access institutions such as UT Brownsville or DeVry.

True, graduates from these institutions won’t have the class rings and secret handshakes that come with Ivy League educations—and their earnings and future networking opportunities may well reflect that difference. But broad-access institutions can and do open doors for many more low-income students than the more selective institutions will ever educate, and improving graduation rates at regional campuses or for-profit institutions is essential to increasing the number of adults with postsecondary credentials.

While we’re at it, let’s evaluate the success of the nation’s institutions of higher education, keeping in mind the unique challenges each type of school faces. Rating systems or gainful-employment regulations, aimed at holding schools accountable for whether their graduates find jobs, aren’t fair if they don’t take into account the risk factors of the students those colleges are educating.

Low-income students deserve policy help. But the policies with the best chance of helping any sizable number of these students are ones that recognize the unique role of the many institutions serving low-income students—and improving their performance. Meanwhile, over-worrying about undermatching strikes me as a distraction generated by those who can’t see much beyond Cambridge, Princeton, or Palo Alto.