Higher Education

Little evidence found that academic mismatch alters graduation rates

The odds that students will graduate from college are neither improved nor worsened when they go to schools with average admission test scores higher or lower than theirs, according to a new study.

The report, being published in the American Educational Research Journal, questions the theory of “undermatching,” which holds that students with academic potential and often from low-income backgrounds choose lower-tier colleges from which they are less likely to graduate; and the concept of “overmatching,” which suggests that underqualified students end up over their heads at highly selective universities.

“There has been a lot of stuff written particularly about undermatching, and that if only kids went to more selective schools, they would graduate in bigger numbers,” said one of the report’s coauthors, Paul Attewell, a professor of sociology and urban education at the City University of New York Graduate Center. “That’s not really true.”

In spite of ongoing efforts to steer smart low-income students into better colleges than they might otherwise choose, Attewell said, “The idea that you can just get kids into fancier schools as a solution to low graduation rates is almost certainly a mirage.”

The study did find, however, that the higher an institution’s tuition, the better its overall graduation rate. When such factors as the SAT scores of entering freshmen are controlled for, it said, every additional $1,000 in tuition is associated with a 1 to 1.5 percent increase in graduation rates.

“Institutions that have higher tuition are wealthier institutions on the whole, and spend more money on deans of students and advisements, where the big public universities may have one advisor for 1,000 students,” Attewell said in speculating about the reasons for the finding.

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