Understanding Hispanic Academic Undermatch

In fall 2019, NCAN partnered with a group of five graduate students, Sarah Fitch, Deon Glaser, Vanessa Lopez, Maya Pendleton, and John Perrino, from the George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration. For their capstone project to fulfill a degree requirement, the group took a closer look at Hispanic students’ postsecondary undermatch and identified best practices to help students find a best match institution.

This study aims to better understand the drivers behind college choice and completion rates among Hispanic students. The report was prepared to help equip their member organizations with information and tools to address academic undermatch and improve postsecondary degree completion rates for Hispanic member-served students. Obtaining a college degree is crucial for economic mobility, especially for underrepresented communities with less access to economic stability. The report finds that academic undermatch is one metric to understand college access, but that a more comprehensive, student-centered approach, is needed to support student access and degree completion. The report recommends that NCAN members emphasize college fit, which includes the social, cultural, economic, as well as academic needs of students in developing programs for Hispanic member-served students.

Click the links below to navigate to the report's sections or view the full report.

Project Rationale

Recently, NCAN collected data from their member organizations and the U.S. Department of Education and determined that academic undermatch among Hispanic students is an area that merits further attention and research. At 47%, Hispanic students make up the largest proportion of students served by members who participate in NCAN’s recent benchmarking report, “Closing the College Graduation Gap: Enrollment and Completion Outcomes by Race/ Ethnicity and Gender” (the Benchmarking Project) and present the greatest opportunity for impact (Raphael & DeBaun, 2019). They also make up the largest share of first-time enrollees at two-year public institutions in the Benchmarking Project (Raphael & DeBaun, 2019), and these institutions have the lowest college completion rates of all postsecondary institutions (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019).

Literature Review: Hispanic Undermatch

Defining Academic Undermatch

Recent higher education research has drawn attention to academic undermatch. The concept is grounded in the idea of college matching, first proposed by researchers at the University of Chicago Consortium and popularized by Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson’s 2009 book examining college completion. Matching measures the selectivity of a college or university that a student decides to attend against the selectivity of a college or university that student could have attended based on academic credentials such as grade point average (GPA), Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores or American College Test (ACT) scores, and Advanced Placement (AP) coursework (Bowen et al., 2009; Smith et al., 2012).

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 (Bastedo & Flaster, 2014; Bowen et al., 2009; Smith et al., 2012). As a result of this measurement to determine the selectivity level that students qualify for and the complexity of the opportunities available, there are many variations in how academic undermatch is defined in the literature. For instance, Bastedo and Flaster (2014) define academic undermatch as when a high school graduate either does not attend college or attends a college or university that is less selective than their academic achievement. In contrast, other research limits the definition of academic undermatch only to students who apply to college, excluding students who do not pursue postsecondary education at all (Freeman, 2017).

Issues with Academic Undermatch

Researchers have recently expressed concern that academic undermatch appears to label students’ college application and acceptance decisions as right or wrong, relies on the assumption that researchers can decide which colleges are acceptable for individual students to attend, and attempts to determine what is best for students (Bastedo & Flaster, 2014; Freeman, 2016). Conceptualizing academic undermatch also requires researchers to assert that a certain type of social order exists, with high achieving students attending highly selective schools while lower achieving students attend less selective colleges and universities (Bastedo & Flaster, 2014; Downey & Genschel, 2017). Additionally, when the concept of academic undermatch is applied in the normative sense, the concept obscures valid reasons why students might choose to attend schools that are less selective than their academic achievement indicates (Bowen et al., 2009; Rodriguez, 2015; Freeman, 2017). To correct for some of the assumptions that academic undermatch makes, researchers suggest that there are many reasons why colleges might be a good fit for students regardless of their overall selectivity ranking (Rodriguez, 2015; Smith et al., 2012; Bowen et al., 2009).

There are also inherent issues with researching academic undermatch. In order to determine which schools should be ranked as highly selective, researchers group colleges and universities into a hierarchical order, or rely on third-party rankings, but there is still little consensus on definitions for selectivity and the stratification of collegiate institutions (Rodriguez, 2015; Bastedo and Flaster, 2014). Moreover, to estimate the prevalence of academic undermatch, researchers must assume that their calculations correctly predict which schools students would be admitted to, but selective colleges and universities use more holistic approaches for the college admission process than the formulas used in most studies (Bastedo and Flaster, 2014). Research has also documented regional differences that contribute to college application and acceptance decisions, making general research into undermatch unreliable (Rodriguez, 2015).

Value in Examining Academic Undermatch

Despite issues such as lack of common operationalization, presumptions and calculations, researchers still find value in studying academic undermatch and its relation to college completion. About 60% of undergraduate students complete their degrees within six years and only 32% of students enrolled at two-year colleges complete their degrees (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). Students who are appropriately matched are more likely to finish their degrees, suggesting that understanding and addressing academic undermatch is important for student success (Freeman, 2017). Attending more highly selective postsecondary institutions can also provide students with broader access to the labor market, increased lifetime earnings and job satisfaction, and lower health care costs (Freeman, 2017; Bowen et al., 2009). Moreover, research suggests academic undermatch might be more prevalent within certain groups such as racial and/or ethnic minorities, first-generation college students, and low-income families (Bowen et al., 2009). Therefore, increasing understanding of academic undermatch and its effect on college completion can also help reduce stratification based on socio-economic status.

Academic Undermatch in Hispanic Communities

The Hispanic community is an especially important focus for academic undermatch with an underrepresented population in higher education and a U.S. high school graduate population projected to grow by 40% in the next decade (Rodriguez, 2015). Hispanic college enrollment in the U.S. has grown 250% from 1990 to 2010, largely as a result of Hispanic population growth. During the same period, overall growth in enrollment was 52% and enrollment among White students rose just 19% (Snyder & Dillow, 2012). One peer-reviewed study finds an even greater gap, a 487% increase in Hispanic enrollment over this period compared to 20% growth for White student college enrollment (Rodriguez, 2015). Despite this drastic growth, however, Hispanic students are still more likely to attend two-year postsecondary institutions than White students. Furthermore, as institutional selectivity levels increase, Hispanic student representation decreases (Rodriguez, 2015). Only 14% of Hispanic students enroll in the “most selective” and “very selective” four-year colleges as compared to 40% of White students (Bozick & Lauff, 2007). This indicates the access problem for Hispanic students is about equitable access to all colleges (Snyder & Dillow, 2012; Rodriguez, 2015).

Prior research has shown Hispanic students have a different experience during the college choice process from White students and suggests that academic undermatch interventions in policy and practice should be better suited to accommodate the needs of Hispanic students (Rodriguez, 2015; Naranjo 2016; Freeman, 2017). These differences may be caused in part by college costs, high school resources, parental education levels, family dynamics and language barriers. Rodriguez (2015) outlines four key components that make the Hispanic college choice process unique: (1) academic preparation and achievement, (2) perceptions of college costs and affordability, (3) networks students can access and the information they receive about college from those around them, and (4) preferences and tastes they develop for institutions.

Hispanic students are more likely to attend high schools with fewer advanced (AP/International Baccalaureate) class options and less likely to take those courses when available. This may be a result of perceptions about their academic preparation resulting from language barriers, immigrant status, cultural preferences, and socioeconomic barriers (Rodriguez, 2015; Naranjo, 2016; Freeman, 2017). This unique experience may be why there is a significant gap in the type of colleges and universities Hispanic students are prepared to attend compared to White students. Still, there are conflicting findings on whether Hispanic students apply to the most selective institutions they are qualified for, so high school academic strength may not be stopping students from applying to more selective institutions. In 1992, U.S. Department of Education data shows over 90% of students of all races and ethnicities did not apply to a matched college. In the 2004 cohort, that improved to 66% for academically undermatched students with low socioeconomic status, compared to 56 percent for more affluent students (Smith et al., 2012). While students of a higher socioeconomic status are less likely to academic undermatch at the application   stage, there has been significant improvement in that all students are more likely to apply to schools that match their academic credentials.

Strategies to Address Academic Undermatch and Degree Completion

The Hispanic student population is not a monolith; it encompasses students with a wide range of backgrounds, family education levels, socioeconomic statuses, and familiarity with the U.S. postsecondary system. It is important to avoid prescriptive programs that work for “all” Hispanic students. For that reason, the research team researched strategies tried in different subsets of the Hispanic student population.

The National College Access Network (NCAN) is focused on increasing college access for low-income, first- generation college students, and/or students from populations that are traditionally underserved by postsecondary education. This study focuses on academic undermatch and college completion for Hispanic students. Research and pilot programs attempting to address academic undermatch well before students begin college, as well as programs developed to help students remain in college, were relevant  in structuring this study’s interview protocols.

While not all Hispanic students qualify for need-based programs, those that are aware of and eligible for need-based programs may find them to be a useful way to fund their postsecondary education. Once those students begin college, it is important to know whether the funds help them remain in school compared to students who did not qualify or apply for the same programs. Researchers found a positive relationship between low-income students who qualified for need-based grants like the Pell Grant and continuing their education, but this was not statistically significant (Fack & Grenet, 2015). The lack of statistical significance could mean that making college more affordable is not enough to narrow the degree attainment gap.

Freeman (2017) studied Hispanic student college decision-making by conducting focus groups in a rural, low-income meat packing community with a growing immigrant population. The community added information about the college application process into high school student’s schedules to go over complicated topics and processes that were unfamiliar for the immigrant community. This multiyear process helped increase matriculation at the local community collegei. The approach incorporated education, economics, cultural, and social realities of the students’ lives. Postsecondary information sharing was also made available to parents and guardians in their native language to explain why they should not consider high school to be the final step in their child’s education.

Creating a support network that was culturally sensitive to the needs of the student and their family allowed this program to help students see value in attending college. Many of these students started at the local community college, but for others, this exposure to postsecondary education options helped them leave their community and attend a four-year institution. This study is also an example of the difficulties of defining undermatch because while some institutions technically qualify as an academic undermatch they are not inherently bad. It’s “more accurate to think of [the local community college] as a provisional step for rural Hispanic students wanting to try out college before untethering themselves from family and friends and venturing forth on their own” (Freeman, 2017). A student may see community college as an opportunity to continue education when a four-year institution would be out of the question due to cost, distance, or familial obligations at that time.

Other programs have been used to promote completion of a degree once students start at a four-year college. In one example, a four-year, private nonprofit university utilized student support groups on campus and incorporated their families into the process through in-person sessions with the option to participate through video call. The university also provided resources including mentors, online courses, and tutoring for students (Bailey, 2018). This study highlighted what worked for students by limiting their interviews to Hispanic students who graduated from the institution.

Another important question in addressing undermatch and college completion rates is whether the selectivity of an academic institution makes a significant difference in student outcomes. A multivariate analysis of high achieving low-income students shows that with all other factors held equal, there was a 5% increase in bachelor’s degree completion rates for students who attended highly selective institutions over those who attended less selective institutions (Melguizo, 2010). It is less likely that students will academically undermatch at highly selective institutions, but it’s possible that less selective institutions can reproduce some of the conditions that increase graduation rates.

Research Question #1: How do NCAN member- served Hispanic student enrollment and college completion rates compare to those nationwide?

To gain a better understanding, the capstone group analyzed data from NCAN’s Benchmarking Project, the National Student Clearinghouse, and the National Center for Education Statistics to identify any substantial differences between the NCAN member-served Hispanic student population and the national student population. Read more about their analysis of enrollment and completion trends below.

NCAN & National Data

To determine how the NCAN member-served Hispanic student population compares nationally, the study used data from four sources. First was NCAN’s 2018 National College Access and Success Benchmarking Report, which includes data from 69 NCAN member organizations and 103,065 students from the high school class of 2011. Student-level data was submitted through the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) StudentTracker system by NCAN members, where National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) matched this with NSC enrollment and completion data for the same students. NCAN members also provided student demographic and services data for inclusion. NSCRC then identified postsecondary institution attributes and aggregated student data to produce overall enrollment and completion rates for NCAN member-served students.

To compare NCAN data against a national sample, the research team used National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) Signature Report No. 14, Completing College: A National View of Student Completion Rates – Fall 2011 Cohort, which reviews the outcomes of 2,270,070 students in the U.S. whose first postsecondary enrollment occurred in fall 2011. The data includes more than 3,600 institutions and represents nearly 97% of enrollment. The NSCRC dataset did not include first-generation statistics, but the research team felt it was important to get a clear understanding of how the NCAN member-served first-generation Hispanic student percentage compared against a national sample. Therefore, the 2011–12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) was used. This study provides data on a broad array of demographic and enrollment characteristics across 95,000 undergraduate and 16,000 graduate students in the U.S.

1. How do NCAN member-served Hispanic student enrollment and college completion rates compare to those nationwide?

NCAN focuses on improving postsecondary support for underrepresented students, including students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation students. With the goal of closing equity gaps in postsecondary attainment for these groups, the NCAN member-served student population reflects a significantly higher proportion of Hispanic students than the national average. NCAN’s recent Benchmarking Project compared NCAN member-served student data with a nationally representative sample collected by the U.S. Department of Education National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). This study analyzes the Benchmarking Project’s underlying data to focus specifically on how Hispanic student enrollment and completion rates compare across the two samples.


As illustrated in Figure 2, 47% of NCAN member-served first-time enrollees are Hispanic, compared to 14% in the nationally representative sample. This difference has implications for comparing the performance of NCAN member efforts to improve undermatch and college completion rates for their students against national trends. It also highlights the importance of identifying proven strategies to improve Hispanic student outcomes within NCAN member-served student communities given their representational majority.

Source: 2018 National College Access and Success Benchmarking Report & NSCRC Signature Report No. 14, Completing College: A National View of Student Completion Rates – Fall 2011 Cohort

As shown in Figure 3, more than half of Hispanic students enrolled in two- and four-year institutions nationwide are considered first-generation. Looking at NCAN member-served student demographics, the number increases to 72%. This difference is not surprising given NCAN’s focus on improving support for underrepresented students but does increase the importance of identifying and addressing barriers unique to first-generation Hispanic students when designing support programs. It is worth noting that NCES defines first-generation college students as “those who are first in their family to attend (any type of) college.” NCAN defines the term first-generation based on “each program’s preferred definition.” It is important to note there is disagreement among researchers and institutions in defining the term, with some counting only students whose parent or guardian did not attain a bachelor’s degree. Therefore, this inconsistency should be considered when comparing these datasets.

Source: 2018 National College Access and Success Benchmarking Report & NCES 2011-2012 Academic Year Student Data

As Figure 4 shows, NCAN member-served students attend four-year institutions at a rate four percentage points higher than the national sample, but that rate drops by two percentage points for Hispanic students. Additionally, Figure 5 illustrates NCAN member-served Hispanic students enroll in four-year public institutions at a rate ten percentage points higher than those nationally. At four-year private institutions, however, NCAN member-served student attendance is two percentage points lower than the national average. This contrast suggests either a difference in NCAN member-served student circumstances as compared to Hispanic students nationally, or in how NCAN members are supporting these students in their exploration of four-year private institutions.

The higher rate of enrollment for Hispanic students at four-year public institutions and lower rate of enrollment at two-year public institutions may signal NCAN’s success in addressing Hispanic student undermatch by focusing on boosting enrollment at four-year public institutions over two-year institutions. As studies have shown, four-year postsecondary institutions have higher degree completion rates than their two-year counterparts (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). Two-year private institutional enrollment data was of such small magnitude that is it not included in the comparison.

Source: 2018 National College Access and Success Benchmarking Report & NSCRC Signature Report No. 14, Completing College: A National View of Student Completion Rates – Fall 2011 Cohort

Source: 2018 National College Access and Success Benchmarking Report & NCES Digest of Education Statistics Table 306.50, 2017

College Completion

According to The Benchmarking Project, NCAN member-served students of color, including Hispanic students, complete postsecondary degrees at higher rates than the nationwide average but at lower rates than White students nationally (Raphael & DeBaun, 2019). This suggests that addressing undermatch and improving college completion rates for NCAN member-served Hispanic students is of great importance in closing the gap with White students. As Figure 6 shows, combined postsecondary completion rates for NCAN member-served Hispanic students are only one percentage-point higher than Hispanic students in the national sample. This small difference suggests Hispanic students served by NCAN members may face similar obstacles to degree attainment as those nationwide. At first glance it may appear NCAN members have failed to provide adequate support to improve completion rates for their large population of Hispanic students. However, according to a recent NCAN report, national Hispanic student postsecondary enrollment and completion rates have increased significantly over the past few decades. Between 1980 and 2017, the population of Hispanic students ages 18-24 increased by a factor of 2.5 and the proportion of bachelor’s and associate’s degrees received by Hispanic students increased by 12% and 17%, respectively (DeBaun, 2019). This rapid nationwide growth should be considered when comparing NCAN member-served Hispanic student outcomes to the national sample, as improving NCAN member-served student completion rates over an already high-performing national group can be difficult.

Stop-out rates — when a student enrolled previously but left school either temporarily or permanently before completing a degree within the six-year timeframe — are four-percentage points lower for Hispanic students served by NCAN members, which could suggest NCAN support provides a benefit to prevent students from leaving school before graduating. Further research is needed to explore this small but meaningful difference and whether NCAN member programs have a causal relationship with the decrease.

Source: 2018 National College Access and Success Benchmarking Report & NSCRC Signature Report No. 14, Completing College: A National View of Student Completion Rates – Fall 2011 Cohort

Overall, the comparison between NCAN member-served students and the nationally representative NSCRC sample shows that Hispanic students are still more likely to attend two-year postsecondary institutions than their non-Hispanic counterparts (Figure 4). While NCAN member-served Hispanic students enroll in four-year public institutions at a higher rate than those nationwide, the nearly identical six-year outcomes for Hispanic students served by NCAN members and the national sample suggest  opportunity to increase support by NCAN members to improve college completion rates as the Hispanic postsecondary student population increases.

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?

This segment of their report seeks to answer the second of the group’s three research questions: is there a factor or set of factors unique to the Hispanic population that contributes to academic undermatching and college degree completion? The capstone group used an online member survey to explore the college decision-making process of Hispanic students and common enrollment and degree completion barriers for these students.

This research explores the experience of NCAN member-served Hispanic students who are enrolled in college. To better understand the driving factors behind academic undermatch, the research team developed a survey distributed to NCAN member organizations that provided information about the programs they offer, the population of students they serve, and the trends they have witnessed impacting their students.

The survey also included an opportunity for members to participate in an interview with follow up questions to their survey responses. The research team contacted those survey volunteers and completed interviews with four program staff from NCAN member organizations. The research team also requested that NCAN help identify students willing to share their experience and conducted semi- structured interviews with six of those students. The information gathered in those interviews contributed to greater understanding of the barriers experienced by Hispanic students enrolled in NCAN member programs and their experience with college access and college degree completion. All student names have been anonymized in this report for privacy.

Through the survey and follow-up interviews, NCAN members identified challenges they believe Hispanic students face when considering which postsecondary institutions to apply to and attend. The research team also identified barriers and benefits Hispanic students experience while completing postsecondary education. Emerging themes were similar to those of Rodriguez’s findings (2015), including: (1) perceptions of college tuition costs and related expenses, (2) distance from home, (3) navigating the financial aid process, (4) academic preparation & achievement, (5) navigating the college application process, and (6) fit of the schools’ culture and demographics, including associated support structures (see Figure 7).

These concerns inform how NCAN members can help their students complete postsecondary education through mitigating common barriers. Members and students report that they and their families are less familiar with higher education, have less direct access to resources, and need culturally relevant education about the college application process.

41 of 70 survey respondents (59%) answered this survey question. Source: NCAN Member Survey.

Finances & Affordability

Finances and affordability are major components impacting academic undermatch for many of the Hispanic students NCAN members serve. Along with the direct costs of education, students also struggle to access financial aid resources. For prospective first-generation college students, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) financial aid documents that are required to apply for financial assistance can be difficult to explain to parents, requires sensitive information such as Social Security numbers, which can also cause concern about deportation for mixed status families. For undocumented students, only 19 states permit access to in-state tuition, an important aspect of affordability for attending public colleges and universities. Victoria saw the cost of travel to and from out-of-state postsecondary institutions as another barrier and didn’t want to put the added burden of transportation costs on her parents. She also had to reevaluate her top choice institution when she realized the gap between her scholarship and the total cost to attend.

Many NCAN members see students undermatch due to financial concerns. For example, students applied and/or were accepted to colleges but recognize that they are unable to close the financing gap even with Pell grants, merit grants, and other financial aid. Christian told the research group that he chose to stay close to home to leave college without debt. He is on track to complete a bachelor’s degree without taking any loans. For students who are disinclined to take out sizeable loans to close the gap, local two- year postsecondary institutions are an affordable or even free option that allow students to work while in school and maintain the option to transfer to a four-year school after two years. There is a perception that two-year postsecondary institution schedules afford more time for working or contributing in their family.

Family Obligation

NCAN members identified family obligation as a significant factor contributing to academic undermatch for their students. The NCAN members explained that parents expressed their preference for students to continue their education close to home for multiple reasons. In addition, NCAN members and students reported the importance of a close-knit family structure, which resulted in a more significant interest in staying in close proximity to their families. Some students also reported a desire for daughters to remain close to home in order to contribute to familial responsibilities.

In the survey, NCAN members reported that their students feel compelled to continue to contribute to  the family either through direct financial contributions, childcare, home care, or acting as the primary translator. Our interview with Gabrielle illuminated her concern for being far from her father. As a high school student Gabrielle helped her mother with groceries, laundry, and cooking; after her mother died her junior year of high school she took on those duties for the household. When deciding where to attend college she worried about leaving her father without household support and eventually selected a college 45 minutes away from her father. Victoria and Christian both expressed an interest to be independent  and live on their own but did not want to be far away from home. They wanted to live independently while maintaining close proximity to the close-knit family support that was described by many of the students interviewees. Victoria thought moving away would lead to her being homesick, making her postsecondary education even harder.

For students in mixed status families there is also concern about students moving far away. The research team did not hear directly from students about mixed family status, but it was mentioned in NCAN member organization survey responses. The sensitivity of this particular concern could explain why it did not come up in student interviews.

Exposure to Postsecondary Opportunities

The final reason highlighted for students who undermatch academically is exposure to the college application process. By design, NCAN member organizations target students who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education, including first-generation and minority students. Among NCAN member-served Hispanic students, 72% identified as first-generation by the member organization.

The Benchmarking Project, 2019

NCAN members reported that parents do not often have direct experience with postsecondary education and need assistance navigating the process or the students will be left to make decisions on their own.

Victoria told us that even though her parents supported her going to college, they often could not help her navigate the application process. Gabrielle also navigated the college application process without substantial help from her parents. Her parents immigrated and did not have the opportunity to attend college. However, they knew it was important for her future and advised her to finds schools that offered programs of interest. Her NCAN member organization connected her with students of similar backgrounds when she went on college visits to assist her in finding a good campus culture match.

For some of these parents, there is discomfort in questioning what high schools tell them. In the survey one NCAN member identified “most of these students are targeted for technical 2-year degrees or certifications as their parents won’t say no- their education background doesn’t allow them to feel comfortable advocating for their student and just agree to whatever they are told to do.” Therefore, the education track this member spotlighted could push students towards undermatch by limiting student qualifications.

In some cases, students interested in STEM are limited by the courses offered at their high schools. An NCAN member reported in the survey, “Students with aspirations to attend college to major in STEM, they attend high schools that do not offer physics or calculus - which makes them ineligible for admission although they have GPAs and test scores for admission.” If students are unable to access required courses, they be underqualified or ineligible for their desired STEM degree program. Some students also do not fully understand the future implications of college selectivity. There is an attitude that going to college at all is sufficient so there is no need to go to a school that is far away or more costly.

Participation in NCAN member programs can create far reaching benefits beyond the current student. For example, Michelle is a first-generation college student who saw her experience as a way to provide   insight and exposure to the college process for her younger sister. She started in an NCAN member program that introduced the importance of SAT preparation and helped her through applications and the college selection process. Knowing her sister was watching provided her an added incentive to  understand the system.

In interpreting the responses to our survey and interviews the research team identified common barriers that impact NCAN member-served student decisions about how and where to attend postsecondary education. Financial costs — including tuition, housing, travel, and additional expenses — are a significant determinant in which institution a student attends. NCAN members attempt to address this by helping students apply for or earn grants and scholarships that offset the cost of education. Several NCAN members made reference to emergency grant funds which students can apply for to cover the cost of books and other school supplies or unforeseen expenses that would otherwise prevent a student from completing their degree. These funds are intended to bridge a small gap and allow students to stay on track in their academic program.

Strong family ties are also an important consideration when students are weighing postsecondary   options. Students, families, and the program staff the research team spoke with stressed the importance of family connection in physical and mental support. Some students provide financial and care support for siblings or extended family, others were more concerned about the emotional impact distance from the family support system would have on their studies and wellbeing. It is important that NCAN member programs do not over-prioritize academic match and more selective institutions over the priorities of the students themselves.

Building on the family and community connections, students and NCAN members also the importance of creating a pathway to expose students and their family to what is required, expected, and available when they are thinking about postsecondary options. NCAN members have expertise in introducing students to the necessary steps to apply to and begin postsecondary education. Some members incorporate the parents in this process early but this report also identifies including the entire family as a best practice to set an example for future family or community members to follow. As postsecondary education becomes less of a mystery the students will have more known paths to success.

Research Question #3: Which strategies can NCAN members employ to increase college completion rates for academically undermatched Hispanic students?

In this final segment of their report, the capstone group shines a spotlight on NCAN member, College Crusade of Rhode Island, and conducts an in-depth case study on their program, staff, and students. Through interviews with CCRI staff and students, the capstone group highlights the College Crusade’s most successful strategies and practices to reduce and prevent undermatch for their students. Lastly, the capstone group leaves us with their key conclusions and recommendations to combat academic undermatch.

Case Study: The College Crusade of Rhode Island

NCAN identified The College Crusade of Rhode Island to provide an in-depth explanation of their college access and completion programs. The case study details key program components, provides context about student decision making, and identifies strategies an NCAN member employs to increase college completion rates for academically undermatched Hispanic students.

This case study is informed by semi-structured student interviews with three students who have participated in The College Crusade of Rhode Island. A staff member completed the NCAN member survey about their program and student population and indicated they were available to answer further questions about their organization. After the survey they agreed to a semi-structured interview to learn more about their responses. The research team also looked at the publicly available program information on The College Crusade of Rhode Island website. The majority of information is available in both English and Spanish. Because this is a single case design it would be inappropriate to generalize the results to a broader environment, but the information is useful when used in concert with the survey data and interviews with other program participants.

The research team conducted semi-structured interviews with three participants and a program counselor from The College Crusade of Rhode Island (CCRI). This member organization was identified by NCAN for their robust programming. CCRI describes themselves as “the state’s most comprehensive college-readiness and scholarship program for middle school and high school students in low-income urban school districts.” The students interviewed participated in school-based CCRI programs from middle school (6th grade) through their current college experience.

Belisa Nunez is the CCRI College Success Coach who agreed to speak with the research team about the program they implement and the community in which they work. She explained they begin student recruitment starting in 5th grade and support students from middle school through college completion.

Program Key Practices:

  • Starts working with students in middle school to build a foundation of college-readiness
  • Student participation levels translate directly to scholarship dollars
  • Exposes students to college options with campus visits and counseling appointments

To protect student privacy the student names in this report have been anonymized. The research team interviewed Gabrielle, Joanna, and Victoria, current college students who were accepted into CCRI in 6th grade. At that time, they were assigned their College Crusade advisors and began the academic enrichment, personal development, career exploration, and college application assistance. Some of the program elements are mandatory based on grade level, while electives are selected by students and their families to align with their specific interest areas.

Ms. Nunez indicated that although many of the students they work with do not have established paths to college, they may be interested in attending but do not know how. CCRI focuses on mapping out a pathway to demonstrate how to make college attainable for their students. She also mentioned that financial concerns associated with college are a contributor to stress within the student population —there have been students who earned scholarships to cover full tuition or extensive financial aid, but if there was even a small gap, $2,000 for example, the student may not be able to attend.

CCRI programs are directly aligned to the student and parent concerns about the costs of college by tying student participation directly to scholarship levels. Program participants earn a tiered CCRI scholarship (gold, silver, bronze) for tuition and related expenses based on the number of hours students participate in training, enrichment, and college information sessions over the years of the program. This approach mixes intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to help students feel invested in their postsecondary education from start to finish. Students select the programming they participate in from the available options based on their needs and interests. Connecting scholarships to student actions is an highly effective way to incentivize continued participation through middle and high school.

CCRI utilizes multiple funding streams in order to provide these services to Rhode Island communities that need them most. Nearly 75% of their funding comes from government grants and support including a U.S. Department of Education program called Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program (GEAR UP). GEAR UP is focused on increasing student preparation for postsecondary education in low-income communities. They specifically provide discretionary grants for programs that implement in high-poverty communities that begin services by 7th grade. According to 2016 data, 84% of Crusaders enrolled in postsecondary education within one year of graduating high school and 76% of that group continue to a second year. For Crusaders who attend four-year postsecondary institutions 83% continue through their second year.

The students interviewed in for this report are part of that success. Gabrielle learned about CCRI early in junior high and applied to the program with the intention to fulfil her parents’ hopes that she would pursue her dreams and lead a better life than them through higher education. She is now a junior at the University of Rhode Island. She is the daughter of immigrant parents who were unable to pursue higher education and is the first of her siblings to attend college. Gabrielle’s older brother completed high school, then immediately entered the work force full time. As a first-generation student, she was not familiar with the higher education system. CCRI was a major influence in her understanding of postsecondary options.

Her experience with the program was centered on her long-standing relationship with her CCRI advisor from 9th to 11th grade. This advisor has continued to be a resource and is the on-campus College Success Coach at the university she now attends. The advisor met with her individually, introduced her to colleges she had never heard of before, and helped her complete the correct coursework to be eligible for college. Her participation in CCRI connected her to information and resources she did not realize she would need to apply to colleges. Gabrielle explained that although she received strong encouragement from her parents, they were not able to help her make the decisions and navigate the college application process. Their lack of experience with this very complex system made her success as a first-generation student even more dependent upon the CCRI program for information and access.

Joanna is an immigrant whose mother is unfamiliar with the U.S. postsecondary education process. Like Gabrielle, she used CCRI as her primary source of information about college. She learned how to apply to college, what her options were, and how she would be able to afford tuition and related expenses. The only other resource she used was advice from members of her church. The CCRI program helped her identify what kind of career she wanted to pursue and then helped her find a degree program that would make that attainable. Joanna found it very useful to learn what to expect in college from current students and professors that she met through CCRI programs. She said that seeing these schools firsthand was very informative. Joanna is currently completing her second year at a two-year school with the intention to transfer to a four-year degree program at the end of the year. She plans to transfer to one of the CCRI partner schools she was introduced to while in the high school program.

Another CCRI student, Victoria, is enrolled in an intensive biology program at a four-year institution and was struggling academically. One advisor suggested that she switch to an easier major, but she reached out to another advisor from high school who encouraged her to remain in the biology degree program. Strong relationships with mentors who know and understand the student are an integral part of the CCRI program. Growing up, Victoria’s parents were proponents of her going to college to improve her life. While her father completed college in his home country, he was not well-prepared to assist her. Her mother was wary of sharing her Social Security number and other information for financial aid forms. Information from CCRI helped in that process. After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Victoria intends to continue to a Physician’s Assistant program.

Ms. Nunez told us about a new program that targets highly selective institutions for Crusaders if there to help address the undermatch issue within the CCRI student population. This program will help students increase involvement in extracurricular activities that are highly valued in the application process and direct students with strong academic potential towards selective postsecondary institutions. Further expanding the network of postsecondary institutions CCRI partners with will also help incentivize more students to enroll at selective institutions.

Joanna, Gabrielle, and Victoria were all recommended to participate in this study by the member organization so it is important to remember that these are likely students who have excelled in the program and are not necessarily representative of the experience of all CCRI students.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Academic Undermatch or College Fit?

This study aimed to better identify the drivers behind college choice and completion rates among Hispanic students and provide NCAN members with greater insight into tools that might decrease academic undermatch and increase postsecondary completion. Academic undermatch is an area of focus because previous research suggests it is an important indicator of postsecondary access and long-term success. However, 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.

In many ways, academic undermatch is a deficit model which seeks to understand students’ choices by “gauging a student’s social digressions or cultural shortcomings” (Freeman, 2017, p. 90). Through this research it became apparent that focusing solely on academic undermatch concealed the myriad factors that influence how and why students select their postsecondary institutions. NCAN members and member-served students identified social, cultural, geographic, and financial complexities behind school choice. The data show students consider college fit over the single metric of academic match. Many students voiced desires to attend schools near home and family, schools with robust support services available, and those that minimized financial strain.

Unlike academic undermatch, college fit can include “a wide array of determinants such as cultural and economic background, familismo, proximity to home, community social capital, academic preparation, campus culture, student life activities and supports, and college affordability” (Freeman, 2017, p. 90). This measure provides a more accurate, holistic view into students’ postsecondary decision-making process.

Complex and unique academic and non-academic factors influenced where students sought their education, aligning school choice with their realities and priorities. Moreover, it is hard to argue that students’ decisions to deprioritize attending the most selective schools when other schools better fit their needs fits into the category of academic undermatch. The data revealed the importance of matching students to schools with the best overall fit and providing ways to help that student succeed rather than push students toward academically matched institutions.

In order to address NCAN concerns around member-served Hispanic students completing postsecondary education at lower rates, it is important to provide students with access to support while on campus. The research team heard from students that their perception of college fit extended to finding institutions where sufficient resources were available to help them complete their course of study. Therefore, the recommendation is to direct students to resources at their postsecondary institution to help continue toward program completion. This can come in the form of on-campus advising, funds for secondary education expenses, and intentional community building to help students acclimate to life on campus. It is essential that students feel supported by the postsecondary institution they choose to attend or they will face more difficulty in completing their degree.

Disproportionate Numbers Among Data Samples

The research team initially began by comparing NCAN member-served Hispanic student enrollment and completion rates to nationally representative data. The following key findings are based on longitudinal data for fall 2011 first-time postsecondary education enrollees from the annual NCAN Benchmarking Report on member-served students and nationally representative data from the U.S. Department of Education National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC).

53% of NCAN member-served students were Hispanic while NSCRC data shows Hispanic students only account for 13% of the student population for fall 2011 college enrollees nationally.

Non-Hispanic students received degrees within six years at a higher rate than Hispanic students in the NCAN sample (54%/50%), but the difference was more pronounced in the national sample (67%/49%).

For both the NCAN (41%/33%) and NSCRC national sample (43%/31%), Hispanic students were more likely to attend a two-year college than non-Hispanic students.

This data highlights significant differences between the student population served by NCAN member organizations versus the national student makeup. Students eligible for NCAN member programs are more likely to be minority students with low socioeconomic status, but among the Hispanic population, member-served students still graduate at about the same rate, or slightly higher, than in the national population. Approximately 75% of Hispanic NCAN member-served students are considered first- generation students, significantly higher than the nationwide average.


From our findings, this report proposes the following recommendations and focus areas for NCAN members working to improve postsecondary outcomes for Hispanic students:

  • Engage & 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
Engage & Educate Families Early

In the NCAN member survey and in student interviews, findings show many students and their families struggled to define a clear path of how students get from middle school through college. Families that do not have experience with the postsecondary system benefit from early family involvement and education about what is required when pursuing a postsecondary education. The research team recommends that NCAN members host family information sessions that include parents, grandparents, siblings, and other family members and guardians. This family-based approach underscores the theme of strong familial ties identified in this report. Many families want to support their students but are not sure how. Education sessions that introduce the family to required coursework, test preparation, applications, and the financial aid process early on are proven to improve students’ educational outcomes.

This is borne out of the evidence that informed the U.S. Department of Education GEAR UP program. The program was created exclusively to fund college preparation programs that start by 7th grade. They have seen the benefit of introducing the community to college early on and getting them working toward applications and supporting students through college graduation. Some NCAN members already provide educational programs for the family, but this report recommends that more member organizations use this approach and provide translations or have native-speaking community members run the programming.

Meet Students Where They Are

Finances are an extreme burden on students when deciding where to attend college. Even if a student receives scholarships that cover most of a school’s tuition, other expenses can still make the cost of going away to school prohibitive. NCAN members should consider each student’s individual circumstances, values, and interests when identifying and recommending institutions. If desired by the student, having family nearby to provide support during this major life transition should be considered an asset, and appropriate postsecondary institutions should be encouraged.

Less focus should be placed on academic undermatch. Instead, NCAN member organizations should work with students to build a college access roadmap that prioritizes support systems and postsecondary completion strategies. Students have needs beyond academics and those needs should be accepted and accommodated. This includes accommodating and encouraging students attending reputable two-year institutions as a starting place in their pursuit of a college degree.

College choice is not one-size-fits-all. Different solutions and pathways towards postsecondary completion exist. When guiding students towards postsecondary education, their interests and needs should be considered as much as their academic qualifications and competitiveness. This is of particular importance for nontraditional students, first-generation students, and students from underrepresented groups, all variables that may be missing at more selective institutions.

Consider Two-Year Institutions as a Bridge to Four-Year Degrees

Attending a two-year institution can help students take the first step towards achieving a four-year degree. Tuition costs are often much lower at two-year institutions, allowing students to begin their degree without the financial burden many four-year institutions impose. Completing basic courses at two- year institutions before matriculating to a four-year institution can help reduce the financial burden of a college education. NCAN members should consider how this option expands student postsecondary opportunities and how they can support students who select this option. This approach addresses previous research findings that where a student pursues postsecondary education is important in increasing chance of degree completion and long-term economic stability (Baker et al., 2018).

Many two-year institutions have strong student support services which can help underrepresented students make a smoother transition into college life. This is of particular importance for Hispanic students, who enroll at two-year institutions at higher rates than other students. In some cases, there are also more regional two-year schools for students to choose from, allowing them to stay close to family and other support systems. Because of open admission policies, course schedules, lower costs, and relationships with local businesses, two-year institutions provide college access to a wider range of students. While two-year schools vary widely in quality of education and support services, NCAN  members should identify institutions with the reputation and infrastructure to support Hispanic student success and incorporate them as an initial postsecondary option.

When two- and four-year institutions coordinate to align course requirements and transfer processes, students can experience significant benefits. NCAN members should consider the Virginia “Guaranteed Transfer” program as a guiding example of coordination between two- and four-year institutions. Through systemwide agreements, students who receive an associate’s degree with a minimum GPA from any of Virginia’s two-year schools are guaranteed admission to more than thirty of the state’s four-year institutions. NCAN members should work with two- and four-year institutions in close proximity to each other to ensure courses are transferrable and that students are fully supported by both schools during the transition. Students who lack the academic standing required for more selective four-year institutions can also improve their performance and gain eligibility to more selective schools by beginning their postsecondary education at two-year institutions.

Provide Financial Support Beyond Tuition

Programs where students can apply for unrestricted grant or gift funding can help address the financial barriers that colleges and universities cannot address in yearly scholarships and loan funding packages for tuition expenses. These programs may be supported with the internal allocation of an organization’s funding, through local partnerships, or a combination of sources.

Unsurprisingly, NCAN members and member-served students overwhelmingly emphasized the importance of finances for choosing where to attend school and complete a college degree. While many colleges and universities offer significant scholarships to assist or fully cover tuition, students still need to contend with the cost of housing, travel, food, books, supplies, and other essential but indirect costs of a college education.

NCAN members noted that, in some cases, even the cost of replacing a flat tire could prevent a student from getting to class and cause them to drop out of school. The College Crusade of Rhode Island found an expense of $2,000 can be insurmountable for some of their students. Members also note that some students are also partially responsible for their family’s finances which can prevent students from going to school far from home or require them to juggle multiple jobs with classes and homework.

Increase Postsecondary Support Services through Focusing on Social Connections Research has shown that protective and promotive factors can help adolescents to modify the impact of risks (e.g. risk of failing to complete college) (Zimmerman et al, 2013). Protective and promotive factors are developed out of a strengths-based approach, rather than a deficit model to examine what supports young people need to succeed. This theory also identifies young people’s relationships to adults as a protective factor. Relationships with both familial and non-familial adults, parents, caregivers, and mentors increase young people’s social connections, which research has shown makes young people feel safe and secure and limits their exposure to negative outcomes.

During student interviews, many students identified the importance of their mentors, advisors, church members, and other supportive adults in their decisions to attend and continue their postsecondary education, even during challenging times. Some students even returned to their high school advisors for support when experiencing academic challenges in college. Postsecondary programs should increase students’ awareness about and access to campus community programs that provide young people with opportunities to grow critical social connections that offer them support throughout their academic journeys. In addition, schools should ensure that students have access to individualized campus advising for first-generation students. Facilitating the development of social connections with trusted adults is critical for young people as they navigate the challenges and successes associated with reaching their academic goals.

Use Student Feedback to Inform Program Development

Student interviews provided some of the most useful insight about students’ experiences and provided valuable ideas about how programs can be improved to better support students. The research team gathered firsthand information about how students perceive the effectiveness of programming offered through NCAN members and what support students need once on college campuses. Because of the wealth of information that students provide, it is recommended that NCAN members take steps to formalize a process that collects in-depth data from high school students and current college students that have completed NCAN programs to implement continuous quality improvement and uniform outcomes for NCAN programs. For example, NCAN members might regularly interview students or host listening sessions and include NCAN served student feedback into future program development.