Determinants of Mismatch Between Students and Colleges

Issue/Topic: Postsecondary Participation--Access/Outreach; Postsecondary Participation--Admissions/Coursework Requirements
Author(s): Wiske Dillon, Eleanor; Andrew Smith, Jeffrey
Organization(s): National Bureau of Economic Research
Publication: National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper
Published On: 2013

The match between a student’s academic ability and the quality of the school she attends has implications for the design of state higher education systems and for student aid policy. Understanding factors such as financial constraints, access to information about colleges provides more insight into the influences and outcomes of students' enrollment decisions.

To examine mismatch between student ability and college quality and to understand the implications for the design of state higher education systems and for student aid policy

  • A majority of students are either overmatched or undermatched when they enroll in college. Undermatch is defined as a high ability student attending a low quality college and overmatch is a low ability student attending a high quality college.

  • Mismatch largely results from choices made by students and their families, not by college admissions offices. Typically students who are mismatched aren't getting rejected by appropriate colleges: they are either not applying, or are getting in and opting not to enroll.

  • Financial constraints lead some students to undermatch.

  • More informed students attend higher quality colleges, even when doing so involves overmatching.

  • Students with a well-matched public college within 50 miles are less likely to mismatch in either direction.

  • Undermatching for low-income (minority and otherwise) students is problematic but there is no evidence that overmatching is a problem for that group.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:

Authors' Perspective
  • Mismatch is mostly driven by students and families, suggesting a greater need for admissions officers and high school counselors to help students find a college that is well matched (author interview from Inside Higher Ed)

  • An optimal admissions process does mean there is no mismatch. Recognizing that there are other, non-academic factors in a students' enrollment decision means that some mismatching may still have positive outcomes for students and institutions.
ECS Perspective
  • Reconstructing institutional admissions policy might reduce mismatch.

  • If changes in financial aid policy can reduce students' financial constraints and if students and families learn to change their perceptions of fiscal commitments, students may have greater college choice and may be less likely to mismatch.

Research Design:
Longitudinal study, cohort design

National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) 1997 cohort, focused on students who made their college choice between 1999 and 2002 and started at a 4-year college.

Year data is from:
Data looks at the 1997 NLSY cohort-- those who were born between 1980 and 1984 and who made their college choice between 1999 and 2002


Data Collection and Analysis:
Student ability measured by the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). College quality measured through a multifaceted index created from the U.S. Dept of Education's Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and U.S. News and World Report data.


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