What is Undermatching?


Why is it that so many low-income, yet high-achieving students do not attend competitive colleges and universities after they graduate high school?

Chris Avery of Harvard University and Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford have conducted extensive research on this phenomenon. Known as “undermatching” the nation’s best and brightest from low-income backgrounds tend to shy away from private and selective colleges. Avery states, “Many of the highest-achieving students from the poorest families really shut the doors themselves. They don’t apply to any selective college anywhere.”

Contributing Factors to Undermatching

There is a range of factors that might influence students’ decisions to not apply. First, there are significant costs in simply applying to colleges; applications fees range anywhere from $40 to $80. Wealthier students are crafting upwards of 20 to 30 applications, while their low-income counterparts might only be applying to one or two colleges. Getting into college is more than just a numbers game; quality trumps quantity, most college counselors would agree. But it certainly can’t hurt to better your odds if you can afford to do so.

It’s believed that some low-income students lack the confidence and assurance to apply. A lot of students downplay their own impressive credentials and accolades because they don’t think they’re good enough. To complicate matters, well-qualified students may not know anyone that has attended that university or have any friends applying there. Alternatively, they may even be persuaded by overworked counselors to consider local colleges instead of applying to schools that require lengthier and more complicated applications.

Many low-income students believe they can’t afford it. It’s not surprising that low-income students see the “sticker price” of selective schools and immediately lose hope. Paradoxically, more selective colleges are more likely to cost these students far less because they are able to offer generous financial aid packages. Fortunately, a few schools are working to provide more clarity. Wellesley College developed an online tuition calculator to help students figure out how much they would actually pay given their financial circumstances – all in less than 3 minutes.

FAFSA Challenges

In comparison, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, has well over 100 complicated questions. The form’s complexity deters families from completing the application, and thus, indirectly prevents many low-income students from going to college. Ultimately, many students who do not complete FAFSA are not able to conceptualize the extent of their financial opportunities.

Some Solutions

First of all, it is important to clarify misconceptions that students may have about their educational options. For starters, everyone should complete the FAFSA application. Some reasons students don’t complete the application are because they miss the FAFSA deadline, don’t think that they are eligible, or frankly don’t know about it.

Data shows that families are stressed about the FAFSA. It can be complicated and overwhelming. To that end, NextStudent is available to help. We can also recommend some trusted partners to help answer your questions.