Why So Many Kids End Up At The Wrong College

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Students end up at a college that doesn't match up with their ability far more often than you'd think.

A new study finds significant levels of both under-match — where high potential students attend low- quality schools — and over-match, where less able students go to high quality institutions.

In "almost all cases," mismatch doesn't come from the admissions side, but from the choices that students and their parents make. 

Less wealthy students aren't informed about their options and bow to financial constraints, and more frequently end up under-matched and at lower quality schools. Better-informed and wealthier students, along with those who go to better high schools end up at higher quality schools and don't under-match, but are much more likely to over-match. They seem to think that the benefits of better quality schools outweigh the potential costs of flunking out or underperforming. 

Their parents encourage them. Students with more educated parents are more likely to be over-matched.

The combination of information and advice from parents, guidance counselors, and other support systems on the choice of where to apply seems to outweigh potential disparities on the admissions side, that some students get help writing essays, test prep, and so on. 

Among under-matched students, some 69% didn't even apply to a higher quality school that they're well suited to. Supporting the finding that it's not an admissions issue, and overwhelmingly about family and personal choices, only 8% applied to a match school, but didn't get in.

When it comes to over-match, only 4% of students apply then don't get into a well-matched school. 

Mismatches are defined as the difference between a student's place on the ability spectrum based on testing, and the percentile of their school on a quality index.

It's an economic loss on both sides. Bright students aren't at the places they're most likely to reach their highest potential, and spots at top institutions are filled with students who have less ability and get less out of it, but happen to be encouraged in that direction during their application process.

It's about resources and information. Previous research shows that extremely bright but less-wealthy students rarely even apply to top schools, even though they end up being cheaper than many poorer quality options. They're way too likely, in fact, to end up at two-year and for-profit institutions, or ones at the very bottom of the quality spectrum. They're not informed about their options, the potential for financial aid, or that they have better options. 

The one thing that mitigates these effects is having a well-matched state school nearby. So a strong state system with multiple levels of institutions helps. As funding increasingly gets cut, mismatch becomes more likely. 



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