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Making the Right College Match: More Than Academics

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Snap quiz: What does "college match" mean?

Your answer will probably have something to do with making sure that traditionally marginalized students with high potential choose and enroll in selective colleges. That's because much of the public discussion about college match in recent years has focused on "undermatching," the phenomenon of highly capable students choosing less-selective schools.

That dialog, and the research that has sparked it, have brought important dynamics into focus and alerted the field to affordable interventions to help students raise their sights in college planning.

Now people are talking about the next wave of the college match conversation. What about average-performing students, for instance? What collective profile do they offer us that will help counselors guide them to the right college match? And what role should non-academic factors such as a college's size, distance from home, and cultural profile play when students plan the next phase of their education? We'll overlook most of the student population if we focus exclusively on low-income, high-achieving kids when we think about "good" college matches.

Those were just a few of the questions raised yesterday in a daylong, invitation-only convening at the American Enterprise Institute. The think tank brought together more than a dozen scholars and practitioners to share research findings and talk about the challenges of helping students find postsecondary pathways that fit them well. The working papers produced for the invitation-only AEI convening are available for download here (as is the video). The discussion was aimed at refining the papers for publication in a book in the coming months.

The papers offer abundant detail and insight into various aspects of college match, and I can't cover them all here. But for a start, take a look at the paper by College Board researchers Jessica Howell, Amal Kumar, and Matea Pender. It argues that "fit"—how much a college costs, where it's located, how culturally familiar it is to a student—is a crucial, complementary factor to consider alongside "match" when students are thinking about college.

A paper by University of Michigan assistant professor Awilda Rodriguez investigates why it is that average-performing students have a less-than-stellar chance of making a good college match. A good chunk of it is that these students are more likely to want to stay close to home than their higher-performing peers. But lack of capacity in more-rigorous colleges, and the presence of good colleges close to where many students live, is part of the reason, too.

Higher education came in for a good deal of face-whacking during these discussions. Their need to generate revenue, look good in "top college" rankings, and protect their good graduation rates all undermine their inclination to find and support capable but traditionally underserved students, many of the scholars said during the meeting.

"[Colleges] with high graduation rates are taking no risks at the admissions office. They're simply selecting the lowest-risk kids," said Jon Boeckenstedt, who has a long resume in college admissions, and is now the associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University. For a bracing glimpse into the inner workings of those systems, particularly the work and incentives of the "enrollment managers" who have to produce certain kinds of class cohorts, read the paper by University of Michigan professor Michael Bastedo.

These papers, and yesterday's conversation, signal an important expansion of the public dialog about helping students find the right pathways after high school. What impact they have on counseling in schools, which are notoriously thin on counselors who have the time and knowledge to help make those college matches, is an open question.

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