The latest bad fad in higher education

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Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University, a Catholic school of some 2,500 students  just a few miles from where President Obama last week held its White House Summit on College Opportunity. She wasn’t invited. Instead the administration invited leaders of colleges and universities who agreed to pledge to take new steps to help students in financial need enroll and graduate; at Trinity, 80 percent of the students are already eligible for Pell grants. According to this story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the summit was heavy with leaders from elite institutions, and that wasn’t a coincidence, given what motivated the summit. McGuire explains in the following post, which appeared in Huffington Post.

By Patricia McGuire

“Undermatching” is the latest buzzword to afflict higher education, a theory that “high-achieving low income” students should choose only elite or “competitive” colleges and universities instead of the often-local institutions that serve low-income students in large numbers. Skim the best off the top, the theory seems to say, and they will do very well. Heck with the rest!

Undermatching was one of the motivating forces behind last week’s White House Summit on College Opportunity that included mostly elite institutions to the exclusion of broad access colleges. Not surprisingly, only 2% of the four-year institutions at the White House meeting serve student bodies that have more than 70% Pell Grantees (the best measure of low income students) while 89% have fewer than 50% Pell Grantees in their populations. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of the institutions at the White House table have fewer than 15% Pell Grant recipients in their student bodies.

Nobody can argue with the premise that very wealthy institutions with large endowments and superb resources should share that wealth more broadly with students in need. Certainly, the goals of the Administration’s initiatives to help more low income students are laudable, as are the commitments that the invited universities made. Improving financial aid resources, placing greater emphasis on academic advising, cohort models and summer bridge programs are all worthy tactics to help low income students.

However, the spectre of the undermatching theory is inescapable as the real motivation behind the summit, and the theory and its consequences deserve much closer scrutiny.

In a nutshell, undermatching research looks at low-income students who score high on SATs or other college entrance tests and finds that they tend to attend local public universities with lower graduation rates and fewer resources than more “selective” elite institutions. Many such students do not know, or believe, that they can gain admission to the more selective schools. Therefore, the theory goes, a combined effort of better college counseling in high school and more focused recruiting by the elite institutions should enroll more of these theoretically ‘better’ students.

Fair enough. I’m all in favor of promoting the best possible options for all students, and we all need to work harder to make sure that students enroll in the colleges that are the best fit for them.

But beneath the surface of the undermatching theory, problems abound. The message that elite schools are only for the “best” low income students seems like serious over-reaching, disparaging many more less prestigious colleges that do a very good job serving low income students, including the higher achievers among them. Surely, encouraging elite schools to do more with this population does not have to come at the expense of other schools, nor in a way that appears to discourage students from making choices that may work for them for many reasons beyond the narrow band of research considerations.

Consider these issues:

SAT Scores as the determinant of the “high achieving low income” student:

Thousands of low-income students who do not do well on standardized tests are actually very bright and have great promise (and for this reason, many colleges no longer require the SAT). In the same way, students can do quite well on standardized tests but be highly deficient in academic skills that will undermine collegiate success. Few students are bright at everything — the good writers sometimes don’t get it about algebra, and the math wizards can be clueless about commas. For low income students whose educational experiences occur largely in under-performing public schools, innate smarts may not be enough to overcome preparatory deficiencies that can be debilitating when they arrive on campuses with students who have spent their entire lives preparing for college.

“Fit” is a complex topic in college choice, an idea that includes campus culture, academic programs, student life activities, off-campus environment, the climate for women or students of color or students of particular religious beliefs or cultural backgrounds. The “undermatching” research largely addresses test scores, money and prestige, and has little to say about actual collegiate “fit” which should also include a large dose of respect for the student’s own informed choice. Certainly, better college advising might change choices, but telling a student she’s made a bad choice by choosing a local university rather than an elite college seems patronizing.

Our national policy surely should be focusing on improving “fit” for all students, enlarging educational opportunity without reinforcing the institutional caste system that actually drives up prices at the wealthiest schools by increasing competition for a limited number of seats. The goal of tuition affordability is ill served by touting some of the most expensive institutions in the country while ignoring more modest broad access colleges and universities that also, by the way, have lower prices.

Graduation rates and financial resources as the determinant of a college’s quality:

Oh, where to start with this evil brew? Let’s start with graduation rates, the single most misused and misunderstood factoid in the entire educational universe.

The graduation rate — as the federal government currently defines it in the IPEDS database (IPEDS = fed speak for Institutional Postsecondary Education Data System, the annual data collection survey for colleges and universities) — is not a measure of educational quality. The rate is about seat time in one place, not about learning. Designed for a completely different purpose than its current use, the graduation rate actually measures two things: admissions risk and brand loyalty.

The federal graduation rate was conceived in the early 1990′s to find a way to track Division I male athletes out of a federal concern that football and basketball players, while generating considerable revenue for their schools, were dropping out at alarming rates. So, to start with, this factoid often used to berate broad access institutions was designed for the narrowest of purposes for a population that is unlike most students in higher education, most of whom have one or more “non-traditional” characteristics like parenting, working full-time, attending part-time.

The rate measures only traditional first-time full-time freshmen, a very narrow band of the population in most universities today, and whether they graduate in six years at the same institution where they enrolled. Brand loyalty! If the student decides to move on to another school — as more than one-third actually do — the student is counted as a drop-out, even if he or she still completes in four years at another school. The receiving school gets no credit; the sending school is punished as somehow deficient, even though consumer choice is really the issue for countless reasons.

The graduation rate is clearly an index of admissions risk — universities with the highest graduation rates are those that have huge applicant pools and so they can take only very few of their applicants, and those students are almost all academically very capable and financially stable if not wealthy. Parents spend years of their lives making sure their children are lined-up to get into the best colleges, starting with getting into the best pre-K schools. Given so much parental investment, these fortunate students had better not stop out, drop out, or even dare transfer. A gap year might be permitted; a move to a lesser school might invite being disowned.

Low-income students have a completely different educational and familial experience from birth, and most often they have attended public schools with significant educational deficiencies; many do not have two parents able to be their advocates and navigators through the years of schooling. Many arrive at college completely independent, sometimes with their own children in tow at very young ages, and with little knowledge of the college culture, educational vocabulary and financial stresses of making it to graduation day. Many stop out and restart, sometimes going part-time, sometimes taking courses at multiple schools along the way.

Colleges that enroll large numbers of low income students take huge risks, believing as a matter of mission and social justice that we can make a difference in their lives. We know that these students progress through school in very different ways from more traditional students. We do not consider these students a failure if they do not complete degrees on a traditional timetable. Try telling that to the federal government, the White House, US News or others who use inappropriate data to make harmful judgments about institutions and students.

Which leads to money:

The other part of the undermatching theory is that high-achieving low-income students will do better at institutions that have more “resources” (meaning money) to support their needs. But all low-income students need resources and support, so the idea that only the better students (as measured by SAT scores) should have access to better resources is truly unfair. Broad-access institutions that serve large numbers of low income students quite often have small endowments and devote proportionately more of their scarce resources to financial aid and other supports for student success such as learning support centers and academic advisors. Figuring out how to provide greater resources to help these institutions achieve even better results, rather than emphasizing sending the best low income students to wealthier schools, should be the real emphasis in federal policy.

A study by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid (“Measure Twice”) reveals that the largest factor impacting graduation rates (assuming we should use that data at all) is the proportion of Pell Grant recipients on the campus. Even institutions with large endowments might see their graduation rates fall as the proportion of Pell Grantees increases. Those institutions that deal with large numbers of low income students every day know that the pernicious legacy of poverty in the lives of our students is not easily eradicated by well-meaning tactics in financial aid and advising and bridge programs, but we persist in finding ways to help our students make progress every day.

Educating low-income students is not a competition, but rather, a hard task that requires considerable devotion and a deep sense of mission commitment. Enrolling low-income students should not become some kind of selective higher education “Hunger Games”organized by our leaders in the capital to goad elite schools to select only the most “high achieving” low income students while leaving the rest to languish out there in the districts now declared somehow deficient by virtue of their more inclusive, albeit risky, approach to higher education.

Higher education leaders, public officials and the philanthropists who play a large role in this discussion should be wary about over-reaching on undermatching. Supporting greater success for all low income students enrolled in the richly diverse spectrum of all American colleges and universities should be the real goal of truly effective educational policy and philanthropic investment.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | January 23