College Match and Undermatch: Assessing Student Preferences, College Proximity, and Inequality in Post-College Outcomes
Recently, multiple studies have focused on the phenomenon of “undermatching”—when students attend a college for which they are overqualified, as measured by test scores and grades. The extant literature suggests that students who undermatch fail to maximize their potential. However, gaps remain in our knowledge about how student preferences—such as a desire to attend college close to home—influence differential rates of undermatching. Moreover, previous research has not directly tested whether and to what extent students who undermatch experience more negative post-college outcomes than otherwise similar students who attend “match” colleges. Using ELS:2002, we find that student preferences for low-cost, nearby colleges, particularly among low-income students, are associated with higher rates of undermatching even among students who are qualified to attend a “very selective” institution. However, this relationship is weakened when students live within 50 miles of a match college, demonstrating that proximity matters. Our results show that attending a selective postsecondary institution does influence post-college employment and earnings, with less positive results for students who undermatch as compared with peers who do not. Our findings demonstrate the importance of non-academic factors in shaping college decisions and post-college outcomes, particularly for low-income students.