On June 14, the American Youth Policy Forum and MDRC co-hosted a Capitol Hill forum titled “College Match Matters.” The forum provided an overview of the College Match Program (CMP), a Chicago Public Schools program designed to encourage academically capable students to choose colleges where they are likely to thrive and graduate. The forum also included research conducted by MDRC on the CMP as well as a panel discussion of the implications for policy, specifically considering opportunities for sustainability and scaling up.
According to Crystal Byndloss, senior associate at MDRC, around 41 percent of graduating high school seniors are not properly matched to a postsecondary institution possessing a level of selectivity in line with the student’s academic abilities. This problem of “undermatch,” where students are overqualified for their selected institution, leads to lower graduation rates, as research has shown that students who attend more selective colleges and universities are more likely to graduate. The research conducted by MDRC revealed that CMP participants were more likely to apply to more selective colleges, and were also more likely to be accepted into those institutions. The research also revealed several key components leading to these outcomes including: engaging parents early in the discussion of “match;” encouraging students to apply for financial aid early; and CMP staff working to develop and nurture relationships with “match” institutions of higher learning.
Mariana Saucedo, college match advisor at DeVry Advantage Academy High School and Lincoln Park High School, emphasized the importance of strong follow-up with students in the match process. As the majority of students served are low-income, first generation college goers, much of CMP staff time is dedicated to providing information on financial aid and match institutions directly to students. This, combined with a smaller caseload, allows for counselors to effectively track and support students in the college search and application process.
The panel discussion generated several ideas regarding policy implications. Greg Darnieder, senior advisor to Secretary Duncan on the College Access Initiative explained the elements which drove successful policy in Chicago, citing both strong district leadership as well as the development of data capacity.
Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, elaborated on the need to focus on the “human side” of matching. Expanding beyond academic challenge and compatibility, a successful match must also encompass a student’s “fit” within a particular institution, and include factors such as school demographics, location, and overall culture. By incorporating these elements of fit within the match process, low- and middle-performing students are able to find postsecondary environments where they will have a greater chance of success.
The panel discussed policy strategies to deal with the financial barriers for students, as well as opportunities for K-12 and postsecondary collaboration. Exposure to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application as a first step in the match process was emphasized as necessary for informed and effective matching. Reform efforts which aim to simplify the financial aid process for students and parents may also serve as a tool to ease the information gap for students. Additionally, common messaging among postsecondary institutions; communication between college counselors and postsecondary institutions; and concurrent enrollment were all mentioned as promising areas of future collaboration.
Austin Pate is a research/policy assistant at the American Youth Policy Forum.