Blogpost: Undermatching in Higher Education

By Aurora Kamimura

Last year, as a first-year doctoral student in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education (CSHPE), I consistently looked for opportunities to pair my work experience—serving low-income, first generation, underrepresented students in broadening access to higher education— with my academic work.  Fortunately, I have the opportunity to work as a Research Associate at the National Forum, where our work focuses on the public good and providing equitable opportunities to all qualified students. I still sought ways, however, to incorporate this social justice lens into my coursework and outside projects as well.

Last year, in conjunction with Kelly E. Slay—my research partner and a fellow doctoral student— I developed a study addressing the factors associated with why so many Latino and African American students undermatch to community colleges.  Both Kelly and I have firsthand professional experience working with many talented Latino and African American students who often short-change their opportunities early on.  So we set forth to study this phenomenon: the practice of undermatching.

What is undermatching?  Undermatching is not a new practice, but rather an emerging phenomenon amongst students, especially underrepresented students, who fail to apply to and attend the most selective institution for which they qualify (Bowen, Chingos, & McPherson, 2009; Roderick, Coca, & Nagaoka, 2011).  Many of us know valedictorians or highly competitive students who chose to apply to and attend less selective campuses— these students have undermatched.

Kelly and I were struck in our professional work with the high incidences of Latino and African American students who undermatch to community colleges.  We understand that many other students undermatch and to a much larger variety of institutions, but our study primarily focused in this area.  For this study, we use data from the 2002 Educational Longitudinal Study (ELS) collected for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (ELS: 2002; U.S. Department of Education, 2002a).  We explored a variety of factors that could contribute these students’ decisions to undermatch, such as peer influence, college knowledge, number of schools a student decides to apply to, financial aid, proximity of a campus to home, and demographic data (i.e., race, gender, socio-economic status, etc.).

Going into this study, I was convinced that financial assistance and the lack of time, paired with peer influence, were the driving factors for Latino and African American students choosing to undermatch.  However, the most significant factors were proximity to home and the number of schools to which a student applies.  For Latino and African American students, attending college close to home is still a huge driving factor in the decision to attend postsecondary education.  As community colleges are providing this option more readily, it is often the campus of choice for these populations.  In addition, many Latino and African American students apply to very few campuses, which ultimately limits their options.  If we, as educators, could encourage these students to apply to more campuses, their options could be broadened.  Perhaps the most surprising result was that “race does matter.”  Some educators believe that factors such as socio-economic status are the cause for inequities and that race is no longer a significant factor; this study proves the opposite.

What does this have to do with public good or educational access? Why does it matter if Latino and African American students are attending postsecondary education?  In my own experiences, I was faced time and time again with the reality that Latino and African American students are disproportionately gaining access to the least competitive institutions within higher education.  To be clear: community colleges are excellent institutions of postsecondary education and are a good fit for many students; however, when you look at the proportions of Latino and African American students enrolled in community colleges versus selective four-year institutions, you can’t help but ask: “Access, but to what type of institution?”  Is it truly equitable if underrepresented students are concentrated at community colleges?  Further, the statistics are showing that these students who undermatch are dropping out at exponentially higher rates than students who match appropriately.

Clearly, there is much work yet to be done. There are many more questions yet left unanswered. Kelly and I are continuing our work on a quest to provide colleges and universities with viable options for supporting students who undermatch and for helping students attend appropriately matched institution.  This path toward educational equity still has a long road ahead, despite the many gains we’ve seen in opening access.




Bowen, W., Chingos, M., & McPherson, M. (2009). Crossing the finish line: Completing college at America’s public universities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Roderick, M., Coca, V., & Nagaoka, J. (2011). Potholes on the road to college: High school effects in shaping urban students’ participation in college application, four-year college enrollment, and college match. Sociology of Education, 84(3), 178-211.

U.S. Department of Education.  Education Longitudinal Study of 2002. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2000a.




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