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Mismatch Theory Warrants Consideration

In an attempt to get low-income and first-generation high school seniors to apply to marquee-name colleges, are we doing them unintended harm ("Improving Economic Diversity at the Better Colleges," The New York Times, Feb. 6)?  At least that's what mismatch theory claims.

But it's a hard question to answer because so many factors enter into the picture.  Franklin & Marshall College says that the low-income students they admitted have roughly the same G.P.A. and retention rate as their more affluent classmates.  The college attributes the success to a free three-week summer program for promising high school seniors from low-income families and to ongoing support from mentors.

F&M deserves high praise, but I don't know if its program is scalable.  I say that because studies have shown that if students fall below the median level of ability of their classmates in college, they invariably have to struggle just to keep up ("Does Affirmative Action Do What It Should?" The New York Times, Mar. 16, 2013).  If students feel too overwhelmed, they sometimes drop out, or even worse. That's the downside. On the other hand, struggling can sometimes be a way of evolving.  I think that students have to decide if they are willing to endure what is necessary to succeed in a particular college. 

What I hate to see are students who aren't able to enjoy their college years because of the enormous pressure they put themselves under in order to get a degree from a brand-name school. Even students who have the ability to do the work required are not necessarily immune.    If I had children, I would remind them that the cachet of the degree earned is not a prerequisite for a successful and rewarding career and a good life. 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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