News: Data, Research & Evaluation

Researchers Examine Hispanic Students’ Academic Undermatch, Suggest Best Practices

Tuesday, March 3, 2020  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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Last fall, a team of graduate school researchers from the George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration dove into a project around the phenomenon of academic undermatch, specifically among Hispanic students served by NCAN members. The team was comprised of Sarah Fitch, Deon Glaser, Vanessa Lopez, Maya Pendleton, and John Perrino.

The report notes, “Academic undermatching applies the theory of college matching by identifying instances where students attend colleges or universities that are less selective than they could have otherwise attended based on statistical analysis of their academic achievement.”

After conducting research that included a case study, interviews with NCAN member staff and students, and a survey, the team concluded in part, “This study's research revealed issues with applying the concept of academic undermatch to the NCAN member population, which created concern about the usefulness of the concept of academic undermatch.” The conclusions and recommendations defy short summary and instead demand a more careful re-thinking of how to think about “undermatching” and the “complex and unique academic and non-academic factors [that] influenced where students sought their education.”

NCAN will host a webinar featuring this research on March 10.

This project was spurred when NCAN’s analysis of the Benchmarking Project revealed that ethnically Hispanic students comprise a large proportion of the Benchmarking Project sample, but these students were most likely to first attend two-year public institutions and least likely to attend four-year private nonprofit institutions. Given the differential completion rates at these institution types, shifting larger proportions of Hispanic students to schools where they would be more likely complete is a way to make an impact on attainment.

Over the course of their project, the team examined three key research questions:

  • Research Question #1: How do NCAN member- served Hispanic student enrollment and college completion rates compare to those nationwide?
  • Research Question #2: Is there a factor or set of factors unique to the Hispanic population that contributes to academic undermatching and college degree completion?
  • Research Question #3: Which strategies can NCAN members employ to increase college completion rates for academically undermatched Hispanic students?

They also completed a literature review that is an invaluable resource for those who want a better understanding the available research around academic undermatch.

Ultimately, the report makes the following recommendations which pivot away from the idea of shifting students’ matriculation patterns and instead focus on ensuring students are supported wherever they attend:

  • Engage and educate families early.
  • Meet students where they are.
  • Consider two-year institutions as a bridge to four-year degrees.
  • Offer less-restrictive forms of financial support.
  • Increase college support services.
  • Use student feedback to inform program development.

This project is an excellent example of the ways in which the Benchmarking Project, an invaluable collaboration between NCAN and its members, can point to research questions of interest to the field.

NCAN has been fortunate to work with similar teams of graduate students in the past. Previous teams’ efforts have included deeper dives into the Benchmarking Project and a look at the provision of postsecondary success services by NCAN members. This spring two more teams are considering college access in rural places and best practices for building and maintaining postsecondary ecosystems.

NCAN is grateful to Sarah Fitch, Deon Glaser, Vanessa Lopez, Maya Pendleton, and John Perrino for their important efforts here. Members with questions about this research can contact Bill DeBaun, NCAN's director of data and evaluation, at