A large percentage of students who enroll in college never earn a degree. Only 60% of all students who entered a four-year institution in the fall of 2010 completed a bachelor’s degree within six years. The gaps in degree completion by race/ethnicity show that only 40% of African-American students who entered four-year colleges in 2010 completed degrees within six years, compared to 64 % of White and 54% of Hispanic students. This disparity is alarming because of the clear payoff to college with respect to improved earnings, health, civic engagement, and job satisfaction.
Research finds that students who enroll in the most selective college to which they have access to given their academic qualifications (i.e. student-college match) are more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than their peers who “undermatch” at a less selective college. Accordingly, student-college match is seen as a critical lever for increasing degree completion yet, we do not fully understand why college match matters.
Thirty-nine semi-structured interviews were conducted, across five time points, with high school seniors into their second year of college. Interviews explored students’ subjective academic, social, and institutional experiences. Participants were primarily racial/ethnic minority (38.5% African American; 38.5% Latinx, 13% Asian, 5% White, 5% Unknown) and first-generation college students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Students were recruited if they had academic qualifications to enroll in a selective or a very selective college and planned to attend a four-year college. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and typological analysis was used to divide the data into themes: Academic Supports and Resources, Social Integration, and Campus Administration and Bureaucracy.
Students who enrolled in match colleges were more likely to still be enrolled than participants who enrolled in undermatch colleges (84% versus 56%). They also were less likely to have transferred (4% versus 31%) or dropped out (0% versus 13%). These patterns are consistent with the findings from large-scale quantitative analyses of college match. Many students (58%) who enrolled in match colleges reported facilitative experiences during the transition to college, while most students (87%) who enrolled in undermatch colleges reported a challenging experience. A facilitative academic experience at a match institution is defined as having accessible professors, accessible academic supports, easy social integration into campus life, and the campus administration and bureaucracy anticipating the needs and common obstacles faced by underrepresented students. Describing a typical undermatch student experience was difficult because only 2 out of 15 students attended an undermatch college and reported characteristics of a facilitative experience. Also, 8 of the 13 students who attended an undermatch school and had a challenging experience attended the same institution as such, the challenging experiences may have more to do with the specific institution.
This study draws attention to considering more than just colleges that “match” when applying and choosing a college to attend. Our findings suggests that social workers can help to drive the institutional change in both high schools and colleges to facilitate underrepresented students’ college choices and ease the transition to college.