Finding the Right Match

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Program Works to Get Low-income Students into More Selective Colleges

Rashid’s job is to turn that kind of thinking around.When students at Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School visit Alysha Rashid for advice on which college to attend, often – for reasons of affordability and wanting to stay close to home – they don’t think of leaving the city.

She does so as a college advisor for College Match, a new counseling initiative being implemented on a one-year basis in New York City by the social policy and research organization MDRC.

The College Match initiative seeks to combat “undermatch,” a term used to describe when high-performing students from low-income families settle for less selective colleges than the ones they are academically qualified to attend. Higher education experts say academically capable students who go to less-selective colleges end up hurting their chances of graduation, since graduation rates are lower at less selective colleges.

Completion at stake

Nearly 60 percent of students from families with incomes in the lowest quartile enrolled in colleges for which they were overqualified, according to an MDRC brief titled, “Make Me a Match: Helping Low-Income and First-Generation Students Make Good College Choices.”

“We know if they match up to those top-tier, selective institutions, that their likelihood of completion increases,” said Awilda Rodriguez, a higher-education research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AIE) a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, the MDRC brief says the effect of undermatch is particularly striking. For instance, among students who were “presumptively eligible to attend the most-selective colleges but chose less-selective four-year colleges,” the six-year graduation rate was of 66 percent — 15 points lower than the 81 percent rate for academically similar students who went to top-tier colleges.

“College Match is sort of at the crossroads of completion because it really does make a difference where you end up going,” Rodriguez said. The problem also potentially impacts average performing students in that they may opt to settle on institutions where they don’t get financial support or other supports needed to graduate on time.

“Or it could mean that they forgo college altogether,” Rodriguez said.

The issue of undermatch is one that is garnering increased attention from the Obama administration. For instance, the topic represented a prominent theme at a “College Opportunity Summit” held this past January at the White House.

Working from a list

While undermatch is often discussed at the macro level, Rashid’s job offers a look at the battle from the frontlines and provides ideas about how nonprofits that serve young people might get involved.

A major part of Rashid’s job is to encourage students to aim for more competitive colleges that they might not have otherwise considered.

She said she does this using her “insider’s knowledge” as a former college admissions counselor at her alma mater, Adelphi University, and her status as a “near peer” – she’s 24 years old and a 2011 college graduate.

But one of the most important tools in Rashid’s arsenal is a match list that includes information and statistics, such as graduation rates and scholarship aid, at some of the more selective colleges in the region.

So far, Rashid said, her work at Lincoln High appears to be paying off.

“There have been a few scenarios wherein my initial talks with a student result in the student rejecting my advice, and saying they want to stay in New York City and only apply to CUNY (City University of New York) schools because of affordability,” Rashid said.

“However, within a month or two, at a one-on-one, they’ll tell me that they decided to add another four-year school to their list, typically a bit more selective,” Rashid continued. “While it may not always be on the match list, the fact that they are starting to see that they do have more options shows that they are absorbing and considering the information being provided.”

A role for nonprofits

AEI’s Rodriguez said the emphasis placed on undermatch represents an opportunity for nonprofits that serve young people to help alleviate an overburdened high school guidance counselor system.

“If you have an organization come in and help out, it’s going to be able to build capacity so that you have a lower student-to-counselor ratio,” Rodriguez said in reference to guidance counselors’ high caseloads.

Indeed, caseloads for high school guidance counselors run an average of 407 students per counselor, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

And very little of the scarce time that counselors have for students is spent on helping them select the right college.

For instance, in its 2011 “State of College Admission” report, NACAC reported that on average, public school counselors only spent about 23 percent of their time on college counseling. At private schools, however, counselors spent 55 percent of their time on college counseling.

Organizations interested in partnering with school districts should see themselves as complementing and supporting the counselors that are already in place, said Crystal Johnson, operations associate at MDRC.

“We’re not saying counselors are doing a bad job,” Johnston said. “We’re saying that they can’t do it all.”

Meredith Kelly, the school-based college advisor at Lincoln High School, welcomes the help. By helping 80 or so students, Kelly said Rashid frees her and other staff members to help other students.

Is undermatch a red herring?

Not everyone is convinced that undermatch is a problem.

Rodriguez’s colleague, Mark Schneider, visiting scholar AEI and vice president at the American Institutes for Research, also based in D.C., recently dismissed undermatch as a “distraction.”

“Far more important than fixing the elite undermatch ‘problem’ is attending to the performance of community colleges, regional public comprehensive campuses, and, yes, the for-profit institutions that together educate most low-income students,”

Schneider declared in a January article titled “Undermatch is an Underthought,” which was published on The Quick & the Ed., a website run by the think tank Education Sector. Schneinder wrote that although the earnings of graduates from elite institutions will likely outstrip others’, the reality is that broad-access institutions “can and do open doors for many more low-income students than the more selective institutions will ever educate.”

“Improving graduation rates at regional campuses or for-profit institutions is essential to increasing the number of adults with postsecondary credentials,” Schneider said.

Guide forthcoming

MDRC’s experiment with its College Match program in New York City builds upon work the organization performed in Chicago from 2010 through 2012, which achieved notable results.

Students targeted by College Match chose to attend more selective colleges and universities at a higher rate than a comparison group of academically similar students from recent graduating classes. For instance, MDRC reported, 35 percent of College Match students planned to enroll in the “most,” “highly” or “very” selective colleges, as opposed to 23 to 28 percent of similar students from previous years.

MDRC officials are hopeful that the College Match program will yield similarly positive results in New York City.

One problem is that MDRC does not have the funds to evaluate its work in New York City, officials said. However, the organization’s deliverable will be a how-to guide for practitioners, planned for release in December.

In New York City, the program is being implemented at Lincoln High School as well as Lehman High School in The Bronx. An advisor has been placed at each school.

The program targets students with a 3.0 GPA or higher. Each adviser has less than 100 students in his or her caseload. The idea is to enable the advisers to give students more individualized attention.

“This is very much a personalized experience,” said Crystal Byndloss, senior associate and K-12 education policy expert at MDRC.

Although, she said, it can also be a “costly” service for school districts that are already cash-strapped. In Chicago, for instance, she said the program cost an average of $725 per student.

“That number can scare some people off,” Byndloss said of College Match, which is funded by nine organizations: The Joyce Foundation, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Ford Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, The Teagle Foundation, Heckscher Foundation for Children and Lumina Foundation for Education.

Before working with College Match, advisors get a month of training in topics that range from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, (FAFSA) to essay writing.

College Match borrows the “near-peer” model from the National College Advising Corps. The idea is to provide high school students with knowledgeable individuals who are not so far removed from the highschool experience to help them in the process of applying to college.

“I can share my or my friends’ college experiences to advise students, and it won’t seem like it’s ancient history to them,” Rashid explained. “It feels a bit more applicable to their current process (and) experience.”

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